One day my wife brought home a storybook she thought I might like to read to Owain, then eight years old: it was one of hundreds of titles written by the phenomenally productive children’s author Enid Blyton. As we made our way through The Enchanted Wood I began to wonder whether this could be the same book that had enthralled me when I was around his age, but I couldn’t remember its title or the thread of the narrative, all I had was a hazy memory of children and animals living an idyllic existence in a tree. Quite a while before my wife brought home that storybook I had told her about an experience I’d had when I was very young of reading a full length book for the first time and what a spellbinding, charged experience it had been. As I turned the pages of Owain’s new storybook, I became more and more sure it was the same book that had bewitched me when I was a little boy.

I was too young to have been able to express how reading a full length book had made me feel, but it made me not want to return to ordinary life; I desperately wanted to lose myself in that arboreal wonderland and never leave. After I’d finished reading the story I expected it to continue into a second book – how could it not? I must have searched the classroom library for the sequel, and quite likely quizzed my teacher as to its possible whereabouts, but to no avail. I recall the terrible frustration of not being able to find that second volume and resurrect the elusive world I’d visited; it had to be somewhere, it just had to be; but it wasn’t. My memory of the crestfallen state I got into is as sharp as a pin, stuck forever in the map of childhood. When I told my wife about this melancholy experience she said, shrewdly I thought, “You’ve been searching for that second volume all your life.”

I have no recollection of being taught how to read by any of the teachers whose classes I passed through; likewise, I have almost no recollection of anything I might have been taught. However, I did avidly consume comics such as The Beano, The Dandy, The Topper, The Beezer and The Eagle; and for a long time I was morbidly addicted to American horror comics, the more macabre the better; all making a contribution in their own way to the development of my literacy. Pre-dating The Enchanted Wood I retain a single, vivid memory of the kind of pedagogy I was subject to as a very young learner: I’ve barely taken my seat on my first day in Miss Bendall’s class at Saint Vincent de Paul’s Infants’ school before becoming aware of an imposing column of white cards running up one of the walls: written big on each card is a vowel combination, forming a vertical stack of hieroglyphics whose incomprehensibility puts me on edge, yet I can’t avert my eyes and stare at them intently. I know these cryptic decorations are important because they occupy pride of place in the classroom; they relate to reading and writing, I do get that, and I also realise that at some point I would have to grapple with these daunting configurations; it was an unsettling first encounter with the building blocks of literacy.

Reading The Enchanted Wood was the first time my imagination had been colonised by the printed word. I’m sure it couldn’t have been too long after that before I jumped into a deeper literary pool: most likely a teacher or a classmate would have told me about the Windsor Street public library, perched atop the city’s only hill, high enough to see over the river and a good twenty minute walk from where I lived. None of my friends ever accompanied me on my visits there; I don’t know why that was, but my trips were usually undertaken alone. Windsor Street children’s library was an inviolable space, with its waxed parquet floor, hardwood tables, and windows that allowed in acres of daylight. It was a peaceful book-lined redoubt far away from the conflicts of my disintegrating home life and I was as content there as it was possible to be, in an environment free of threat, where I could pick up any book I wished, perhaps scan a few pages, return it to the shelves or borrow it if something about it appealed.

As an adult I need the tactile pleasure of paper and don’t use any kind of electronic device for serious reading. Not long ago I became a resident of Edinburgh, a city blessed with numerous second-hand bookshops; it goes without saying I’ve been inside most of them and know now which are the good ones and which are rubbish. A couple of Xmas’s ago whilst browsing in one of these shops I bought four ancient, anonymous looking hardbacks, all in quite good condition, and when I got home I made a package of them for Owain and left them under the Xmas tree; when he tore off the wrapping on Xmas morning and saw their titles he whooped. It hadn’t been too long before this that our lives had been brightened by Just William, an antique collection of stories by Richmal Crompton, about the exploits of a put-upon eleven-year-old gang leader and his ragtag pals, The Outlaws. Our eponymous hero and his deeply middle-class family live in the Arcadian serenity of the English countryside between the wars; they and their neighbours have servants and exist in a comfort zone far removed from the troubles of the real world. William’s wayward schemes are forever being undone by interfering adults – furious gamekeepers and grumpy farmers are regular despoilers of William’s quest for interesting fun – but regardless of meddlesome grown-ups, he and his loyal Outlaws manage to emerge from most of their escapades with unlooked for credit. Crompton makes no concession to the possibly limited vocabulary of her audience – we must come up to her level – and she doesn’t condescend to her readers; but most importantly, her stories are full of humour and reassuring absurdity. William’s enduring popularity is testament to the author’s talent as a writer for children: the first collection of her stories was published in 1922 and the last one in 1970.1 There are 38 books in all and, fortunately for me, I found a sizable number of them on the shelves in Windsor Street and religiously made my way through every one of them. William’s milieu was a zillion miles away from the war ravaged inner city that was my home, and in an echo of the lost world of The Enchanted Wood his freedom to play in the woods and fields around his village spoke of a pastoral idyll I could only ever dream of.

I can’t recall where I came across The Little World of Don Camillo, perhaps in the children’s library, maybe in the adults’, but I was a bit older when I discovered William’s successor. I came to love Don Camillo with a sentimentality that’s hard to comprehend now. Giovanni Guareschi wrote about the life of the inhabitants of a small northern Italian town during the politically unstable years after WWII, when Italy’s Communist Party, the strongest party of the Left, was achieving electoral success. His stories are simply told and revolve around the quotidian struggles between the muscular parish priest, Don Camillo, and the equally muscular communist mayor and garage mechanic, Peppone. Don Camillo is often to be found on his knees in the church seeking guidance from the crucified Christ above the altar: How, he implores his Saviour, can he undo Peppone’s latest machinations to persuade his impoverished parishioners to abandon their religion and embrace Moscow? But Christ, with a deeper understanding of the hardscrabble life than Don Camillo, often has to admonish him – gently, it must be said – for his hot-headed reactions towards the mayor and his godless comrades. Nonetheless, Don Camillo and Peppone, adversaries though they may be, have the interests of the people at heart and when catastrophe strikes, as it does, their reciprocal history of struggle – they fought side by side as partisans in the war against fascism – enables them to lay aside their differences and work together for the common good.

I managed to unearth an old copy of The Little World of Don Camillo, published 1951, in Edinburgh Books, the premier second-hand book depository hereabouts; it was in pristine condition, and though shocked by its price tag, I held my tongue and handed over the money. I read the stories to Owain – and to my wife – and while I read I was aware that Owain was unusually attentive and not easily distracted, as he often is. The religious dimension of Don Camillo’s world may have gone over his head, but not the politics: for an 11-year-old he’s historically well informed and knows about Stalin’s relationship to Trotsky; and the Labour Party and the creation of the National Health Service, and on a more contemporary front he is a vociferous supporter of the Scottish National Party (his bedroom window is plastered with Vote SNP stickers). When we came to the end of the final story in The Little World he begged for more: I brought home Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son and Don Camillo’s Dilemma, and we read every story, one after the other.

I had some understanding of Giovanni Guareschi’s portrayal of the religious and political tensions of post-war Italy as similar motifs were present in my own childhood; attenuated in comparison, naturally, but there all the same: I participated in my father’s socialist politics by delivering his election pamphlets (Vote Labour! Vote for Hughie Carr!) to all of the tenement households in our working-class neighbourhood (my fee was a shilling per tenement block); and I even attended a public meeting where he was a platform speaker (an outing so yawningly dull I vowed never to attend such an event again); and the Catholicism central to Don Camillo’s life had been at the core of mine when I’d served for a time as an altar boy, but though my enthusiasm for religion had diminished, it was embedded too deeply to entirely disappear. These historically opposed forces, the narrative lynchpins of Guareschi’s stories, were threads in my own world and empathetically connected me to his two contrary heroes; or I fancied they did.

Before the digital age was even a speck on the horizon, the Windsor Street library was where I became a reading child. There was nothing to read at home; the few books we did have were about British politics and politicians and sat undisturbed on the shelves of my father’s locked writing cabinet, and my mother wasn’t a reader of anything (Compensation for the dearth of reading matter came once a week, on a Sunday, when I was sent by my dad to fetch all the national newspapers; when he’d finished with them they came to me). My parents’ marriage was in perpetual crisis and neither of them paid any attention to my education; I was left to sink or swim. When, at the age of 16, I should have been revising for exams critical to my future, I could be found hiding in the city’s multi-floored Central Library, staring unhappily at my schoolbooks: after five tormenting years of academic failure it was impossible to get my brain in gear and I needed little persuading to abandon the pretence of study. I holed up in the Art Library on the sixth floor and passed the time flicking through anthologies of cartoons from publications such as Punch and The New Yorker. And when tedium tightened its grip, as it did, I’d drift off to nearby St John’s Gardens, site of a long disappeared lunatic asylum, and sit on a bench and smoke Woodbines and gawp at the maw of the Mersey Tunnel entrance, visible at the low end of the sloping gardens, all the time worrying about the future. After a while I’d traipse back to the library and trawl for more cartoons.

When the long incarceration of my schooldays came to an end, the transition to a new reality, an adult reality, with no prospects, aspirations, qualifications or goals of any kind, was impossible to adjust to. After two aimless years of drifting from one job to another – box packer; car washer; farm labourer; van driver’s mate – I left home and moved to a small town in the south where I found a job pruning trees and mowing grass for the local Council, and on three evening’s a week I went to night school and studied for the exams I’d failed. On the strength of this I was accepted as a student at a northern art school. Thus began my climb out of the trough of despond.

Lying in bed last night, drowsing on the edge of sleep I was thinking of Windsor Street library as a small world peopled by children like myself, hungry for stories and watched over by book shepherds, courteous librarians who left their wards alone to graze… but I regret that no grown-up ever showed an interest in what I might have been reading; how I would have appreciated someone saying: “This is a good book; I think you’ll like it.” My choices of what to read were perforce random and uninformed, so most of the classic stories of childhood remained concealed in plain sight on the library shelves; a very long time was to pass before I experienced the vicarious pleasure of reading to Owain fabulous stories such as The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, Doctor Dolittle, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Little House on the Prairie, Kidnapped, Black Beauty, Stuart Little, The Eagle of the Ninth, Emil and the Detectives, Pippi Longstocking.2 It won’t be too long before Owain is a teenager so our reading has of necessity shifted up a gear: a big shock has been his demand for P. G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves stories (which I read to him in a faux posh accent); so far we’ve negotiated two volumes of Spike Milligan’s whimsical war memoirs;3 and we were riveted by ex-Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s compelling autobiography of his childhood in post-war London.4 This morning before my wife left for work she said she thought Owain might be ready for Robert Grave’s I Claudius; a bit of a stretch I felt, but a couple of minutes later, on the principle that one’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, I wondered if she might be right. But Clau- Clau- Clau- will have to wait as we’ve just started on another book of William adventures.

In ancient China, the retiring Chán patriarch would invest his successor with the mantle of authority by handing over his robe and bowl in a symbolic transmission of the Dharma. A few days ago Owain brought home his end-of-year school report. In among the education-speak his class teacher says: “…he is a fluent, expressive reader with a very good understanding of the text and writer’s craft… [and his] writing is of a high standard, he has good ideas and writes in a mature style using great vocabulary, phrases and techniques to engage his reader.” Robe and bowl, it would appear, have been passed.


I was stupid not to have followed my instinct and bought the book the day before when I saw it in the shop window; I turned around, quickened my pace and headed back to Gorgie. Waiting impatiently for a break in the traffic, I squinted toward the display window of the charity shop, trying to see if it was still there: it was, nobody had bought it, probably because of its price; regardless, I stepped out of the shop with The Faraway Tree Collection: Three exciting stories in one. The first of the three stories comprised The Enchanted Wood; the second… the mythical second volume, The Magic Faraway Tree; and the third, well, it doesn’t matter. The book is currently sitting on a table in the bedroom, near a rough wooden carving of a wandering monk, staff in his right hand, his worldly possessions in a small bag hanging off his left shoulder; he stands next to an exquisitely filigreed iron Buddha that had been thrust in my face by an old shopkeeper soliciting for customers from the doorway of his murky shop in a Tianjin market, his sales pitch confined to one word, “Antique!” I have no plans for the book, its only function is to be in the company of the Buddha and the monk as a marker for a period of happiness, a childhood jewel in the lotus.

The children’s section of Windsor Street public library; 1956.


[1] Just William beat Harry Potter for popularity and was named one the best children’s books of all time by five children’s laureates chosen by the Guardian newspaper in 2009.
[2] My list of best authors for children would include the likes of Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson, writers so scintillatingly good you could pick up anything written by them; Philip Pullman, whose Dark Materials trilogy stands alone; Richard Adams, author of Watership Down; Clive King, who wrote Stig of the Dump, now considered a modern classic; Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals; Meera Syal, child of Indian immigrants, whose hilarious account of growing up in a Midlands mining village, Anita and Me, was so good I read it twice; and absurdist author David Walliams; but not J. K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books we set aside after reading only one of them.
[3] Hitler, My Part in his Downfall; Rommel, Gunner Who?; Monty, My Part in His Victory; Spike Milligan
[4] This Boy; Alan Johnson.


What’s that smell?

To give him his due, the Swami ensured Mr Mike and I got enough to eat. In the early evening an old hunchbacked woman came to the ashram to prepare dal and potatoes for us, and this would be the last food of the day. She returned in the morning to make chapattis and milky tea for our breakfast. After each meal we opened the shuttered door of our balcony room and hurled the single-use clay bowls the food had been served in across the road onto a rubbish tip; we were obliged to do this to prevent pollution from our low caste status.

Each lunchtime, regular as clockwork, we were driven off in a truck to whichever house in the city the Swami had been invited to perform a puja. The residents of Meerut were honoured to have this revered holy man in their midst and vied to have him visit their homes and perform this sacred ceremony of purification.

The presence of the Swami obliged the householder to feed whichever members of the community were inclined to visit while he was in residence. Invariably it was the poor, in large numbers, who were to be found waiting patiently until the holy business drew to a close before being invited to step into the house and tuck into the free lunch supplied by the host. Mr Mike and I took our place among the lines of hungry guests and ate our fill of the simple vegetarian food. Afterwards we returned to the ashram and waited out the heat of the day. Towards evening the hunchback would come and prepare our meal, and when night fell we would repair to the ashram roof to sit under the stars and discuss the meaning of life with our Hindu provider.

We never ate meat or eggs, and never, as far as I can recall, fresh vegetables or fruit. We followed this dietary routine for the duration of our stay with the Swami, about three months or so. I don’t know when it was exactly that I began catching an occasional whiff of something in the air, a phantom odour that teased my nostrils for a brief second or two; it wasn’t a food smell or anything else I could categorise; it was a tantalising, elusive fragrance. But then it dawned on me what it was: our extremely spartan diet had recalibrated my digestive landscape and as a consequence I had unwittingly cleansed my insides. The salty tang of dried sweat had been superseded by a scent which had taken me utterly by surprise: it was the smell of my own body.

Mr Song’s gift

One summer not so long ago my family and I lived in a mountain village in north-east China, in Jixian County. Once an impoverished rural community, the village had long since mortgaged itself to the guest house trade, with virtually all of its tourist accomodation providing amped-up karaoke for guests; our first evening there was made memorably unbearable by the drunken braying radiating around the valley until late at night. Next morning on our search for a new place to live we found an airy, light filled room on the second floor of a ‘farmer’s hotel’ on the karaoke-free upper slopes of the village; we moved our gear up there after lunch. Our landlady, Mrs Guo, delighted to have foreign guests, especially when one of them was a red-haired little boy, made us very welcome.

My wife spent her days in the Village Committee office, engaged in the research that would draw her PhD research to a close. The Changzhou Village Party cadres – slackers who spent most of their time smoking and playing cards – paid little attention to Party business; it was the village women who carried out most of the administrative chores. While Sophia was at work, Owain and I explored the village environs and at lunchtime returned to Mrs Guo’s for something to eat. The afternoons usually entailed some kind of adventure farther afield, and then as tea-time neared we’d make our way to the Village Committee office to wait for mum. Before heading back to Mrs Guo’s we’d stop at one of the roadside stalls to get an ice-cream for Owain and a cold beer for the grown-ups to share. While there we’d usually arrange for a ride home for Owain on one of the horses belonging to the wandering equestrians, men from a neighbouring village who rode in each day to make a bit of money renting out their mounts to tourists.

My day in Changzhou Village started early, with T’ai Chi and zazen; then a cup of Nescafé and some reading before rousing my wife and son. If it was a clear day when I opened the curtains I could see an old guard post of the Great Wall perched atop a distant promontory at the farthest point of the village, and beyond it a panoramic view of the valley stretching away into the hills.

When I drew back the curtains one morning I saw a valley shrouded in low hanging cloud, then I spotted a white-haired elderly gent in singlet and baggy black pants, standing motionless on a patch of grass opposite the house; his head was tilted upwards and his eyes were closed, as if he was inhaling the cool mountain air; his legs and feet were close together, and his arms were stretched out, held parallel to the ground. His unexpected appearance, poised motionless against the grey landscape, awakened a long forgotten memory.

‘Whistle Down the Wind’ is a 1961 British movie I saw when I was very young. The film, an intensely allegorical tale, follows the lives of three Lancashire farm children who discover a ragged, unshaven man hiding in their barn; unbeknownst to them he is a murderer on the run. He is discovered by the eldest child, Kathy, who has come to the barn to care for three kittens she’s saved from drowning; the fugitive, asleep in the hay, is startled by her sudden appearance and when she asks the shadowy figure, “Who are you?” he blurts out, “Jesus Christ!” and slumps back into the hay. In her innocence she believes it’s Jesus returned to earth. She and her siblings decide that, given the terrible things that happened to him in his previous incarnation, they are going to protect him from discovery and make sure nothing like that happens again. He doesn’t correct their belief in his divinity and as the plot unfolds the children in the nearby village come to believe that Jesus is living in Kathy’s barn. But it all unravels when the girl’s father discovers their secret and calls the police.

In the darkness of the barn, with law and order speeding to the farm, Kathy apologizes to Jesus for not being able to protect him any longer, for which he quietly forgives her. Then a black squad car is seen screeching to a halt below the hill on which the barn stands; its doors fly open and two detectives jump out and rush up the hill; we see an open barn door and a revolver being thrown out; one of the detectives picks it up and both men enter the barn. The camera pans along a crowd of mute village children congregated at the bottom of the hill, all mesmerised by the drama surrounding the outcast Jesus, now seen being frisked by the two centurions. Kathy’s eyes, sad beyond words, are glued to the man on the hilltop she is convinced is Jesus: his legs are close together and his arms are stretched out to the side, as if he has been nailed to an invisible cross. Seen against a bleak northern sky, Kathy’s Jesus has been abandoned again, forsaken, atop his Lancashire Calvary.

It is this image which burned itself on my retina. Seeing the old Chinese man that morning, poised as he was against the grey clouds, revived the melancholy that coursed through me in the Rialto cinema all those years ago: for a few moments a child’s heart beat inside me with a yearning to embody a condition or state which I have never been able to describe; it is a longing, but for what, I am at a loss to say. The stately old gentleman was practicing Qigong: his graceful, balanced movements reflecting an internal rhythm I seem to have been in pursuit of all my life. I let my family sleep while I observed him, wishing it was me engaging with the arcane choreography he had mastered.

After waking Sophia and Owain I returned to the window, but Qigong man had gone. I thought I might spot him somewhere around the village, so I kept my eyes open for the next few days but I never caught sight of him. Until a week or so later, that is, when I came across him talking with our landlady about renting one of her rooms. It was after breakfast the following day that I approached him, my wife translating: Mr Song was a retired business manager and lived in Tianjin, the coastal metropolis east of Beijing where we had also been living, and he had come to the mountains for the summer because the unpolluted air helped alleviate his bronchial problems. He also taught Qigong to other seniors at Tianjin’s Old People’s University. And like us, he had gravitated to Mrs Guo’s to escape from the karaoke-crazed visitors. The question I wanted to ask had formed itself when I saw him on that cloudy morning: Would he teach me his Qigong? Yes. Could we begin today? Yes. We were returning to Tianjin the following weekend, and our year in China would end very soon after that so I was eager to begin.

Over the next few days, morning and evening, we joined Mr Song out on the hillside and practiced his Qigong. My T’ai Chi training helped me appreciate the subtlety and flow of his movements and I could follow along without too much difficulty, but my poor retentive memory was a hindrance: I could remember pieces and parts of what we were doing but I couldn’t nail the whole sequence from beginning to end. But the generous Mr Song allowed me to photograph him, step by step, from start to finish, and this series of photographs, Mr Song’s gift, became my manual, consulted every day until I had the form down.

My wife said his two pages of internal instructions, which he patiently wrote out for me, contained some quite difficult language and, despite her 25 years of reading and writing Putonghua, his precise meaning eluded her. One of her Chinese friends was enlisted to help in getting a precise translation; this is very important: as in T’ai Chi, internal calibrations guide external motion; so, until the translation arrived I was really only flying on one wing. But now, today… it’s barely light and I might only hear a bird or two singing; inhaling, exhaling, head up, legs and feet close together, arms stretched out to the side…

Mr Song

Do not lose yourself in the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
Do not get caught in your anger, worries or fears.
Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m always losing myself in the past,
always losing myself in the future;
I’m constantly getting caught
in my anger, worries and fears.

Yet for a while each day
in the silence of meditation,
I am brought back to the present moment;
and whatever kind of life that may be,
it touches me deeply.

— Alex Carr

It is what it is

They were happy times: school was just a stone’s throw from the serendipitously named Paradise Street and just 10 minutes’ walk from home, and there were playgrounds to spare: bombsites; boarded up Georgian and Victorian houses; a cathedral cemetery criss-crossed with jungly paths and toppled headstones; the docks, deserted at weekends – Salt House, Wapping, Canning, Albert, King’s, Queen’s – and the Pier Head on Sundays, teeming with idlers and soap box orators. And on sunny afternoons in the summer, away up to Sefton and Prince’s Parks to roam in acres of parkland. I served at mass and Benedictions at our parish church; and during the Stations of the Cross on a Friday night I vaguely wondered whether I had a vocation for the priesthood.

When I was a child English school children took an examination at the age of eleven – the Eleven Plus – whose purpose was to segregate clever children from the factory fodder; passing the exam meant relocation to a grammar school to receive a higher standard of education. On the day the results were released, the headmistress, Sister Mary Cuthbert, assembled all the children and teachers in the school dining room and read out the names of the lucky ones who had passed the exam, of whom I was one. We were given the day off school and I received the tidy sum of ten shillings from Father O’Donohue, our parish priest, in recognition of the achievement. Children who failed the exam continued with a secondary education and were turned loose at the age of 16 to search for whatever work they could find. I left the small neighbourhood school where I’d prospered and was moved to a big, recently opened grammar school an hour’s journey by bus from home.

A viscerally exciting prospect was opening up before me. The uniform I would wear at my new school – purchased from Horne Bros, an upscale haberdashery on Lord Street – hung pristine in my bedroom closet all summer long, and below it nestled a cow hide leather satchel, its rank perfume permeating the air of my bedroom. Like Proust and the nostalgia triggered by the taste of a tea-soaked madeleine, a whiff of new leather never fails to conjure up my 11-year-old self on the first day at my new school, wandering along an unventilated corridor and inhaling dead air saturated with that gamy aroma. The pride I felt as I inspected the contents of the closet I’m sure derived from the fact that all my clothes and footwear were bought second-hand at Paddy’s Market up on Scotland Road, but the uniform was brand new; I felt sensational when I put it on. When the great day finally came, I donned my princely garb and floated down to Cornwallis Street to join up with Michael Dowd, an older Cardinal Allen boy who’d offered to chaperone me on my journey to the genteel suburb of West Derby.

Paddies Market - 1

Paddy’s Market

But my innocence took a knock when my chaperone disappeared the moment we reached the school’s playground, the site of ear-popping bedlam; buzzing mobs of roaring boys propelled me to the edge of the playground with a kind of centrifugal force, and there I anxiously shifted about until a whistle blast from an unseen teacher stilled the tumult and brought everyone to a standstill; this was the signal to enter the school for morning assembly. After the shock of arrival, my earliest memory is of sitting at a new desk, inhaling the smell of fresh paint and gazing at the rash of algebraic symbols being chalked across the blackboard by the headmaster, Canon Kieran, half-moon glasses pinching the end of his nose, his cassock riding up and down his protruding belly as he scribbled his hieroglyphics. I absorbed nothing of what he said or wrote that day or any other; and so it turned out with other subjects that were breaking new ground for me: I could make no sense of chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, technical drawing, French; it was all so bewildering my self-confidence took no time at all to unravel. Compounding my disorientation was the daily torture of lunch: having to eat in the company of posh boys caused me such a crippling shyness I was unable to speak a single word to my fellow diners; it was only natural they should christen me ‘Smiler’.

It never occurred to me to prepare for the exams at the end of the first term; I can’t recollect being encouraged to study for them, and if I had been, I was so isolated and withdrawn that whatever may have been said would have gone by me. In any case, I wasn’t doing anything different to what I’d been used to: I’d taken everything in my stride at St Vinnies without needing to do anything more than simply pay attention; we were never given homework and I didn’t have to extend myself to get good marks in tests. After those first exams came the grading: bright sparks were promoted to the upper streams, A and B, and those who had performed poorly – of whom I was one – were placed in the lower streams, C and D. I was relegated to the lowest class, where I stayed for the duration of my stay at Cardinal Allen. I don’t remember being spoken to by any of the teachers either before or after this winnowing process; I was, and remained, merely a name on a register. The mission of the group of priests who constituted the backbone of the school was to impart academic knowledge on a foundation of religion and middle-class cultural values; working-class sensibilities were, depending on the teacher, ignored or dismissed with derisive hostility. Students were required to conform to strict rules of behaviour; individuality was disapproved of, uniformity encouraged.

Institutionalized violence pervaded the school, meted out at random or by appointment; a slap around the head was so common it was not worthy of comment. Some teachers carried a small leather strap concealed beneath their academic robe and would flourish it for summary punishment wherever they happened to be. Some preferred the cane and were not reluctant to use it. One teacher entertained himself in the playground by singling out an unruly boy and pinching a tuft of hair at the side of his head between thumb and forefinger and pulling it forcefully upwards, and as the victim stretched to his toes to escape the burn, would release his hold and hammer the rascal’s skull  with the knuckle of his flexed middle finger; this pathetic sadist was my English teacher for a year and I suffered his concussive little tortures numerous times. Worst of all was being sentenced to an after-school appointment with Mr Price or Mr Flintsone, the designated beaters of children. Thus the day transformed into a misery of waiting for the going-home bell at four o’clock, when the miscreant would trudge off to the corridor outside the staffroom, where he would wait, churning with self-pity, until the appearance of his executioner. If it was Mr Flintsone, the staffroom would swing open and out he’d fly, gown billowing in his backwash, before beckoning the marooned child into the punishment room. After the unlucky party’s name and flogging details were entered into the Punishment Book, a wall cupboard was opened and a thick leather strap lifted off its hook: it measured about two feet long, was about three inches wide, and was finished at one end with an ominously shaped hand-grip. Six methodically applied strokes would be delivered to the delinquent’s bottom or hands, depending on the nature of the crime; result either way: awful pain. I endured this ritual punishment only once, for messing about in an insufferably dull music lesson.

With the exception of a few thinly camouflaged mental cases, my teachers were mostly time servers labouring under the direction of the priests who ran the school; as a group they were ignorant of child psychology and ill-fitted to the task of nurturing young minds; with the exception of my art class the lessons were numbing.

One incident remains imprinted on my consciousness. Our sports teacher, Mr Quinn, an overweight, rugby playing psychopath who was liable to lash out if he caught you looking at him sideways, was doubling as a Maths teacher and giving us a geometry lesson; we were concentrating on our exercise books as he patrolled the room, peering over each pupil’s shoulder to see how we were getting on with the work he’d set us, and if he was not happy with what he saw a peremptory smack was delivered to the back of the erring student’s head. I was very weak in this subject and had understood nothing of the gobbledygook spouted by this fearful ogre, so I was anticipating the worst. When Mr Quinn reached the desk in front of me where my pal Jimmy Hennessy was sitting he looked over Jimmy’s shoulder, paused for a couple of beats then erupted; when I heard his bellow my head jerked up to see our barbarous teacher’s big hand smashing into the back of Jimmy’s head, which shot forward and crashed into the desktop, blood gushing uncontrollably from Jimmy’s nose. I was so afraid I began shaking and could barely hold my pen, but the Quinn patrolled no further that day and I survived.

Author centre of middle row; his friend Jimmy Hennessy second from right.

And so the weeks and months and years passed. Most of my classmates in the D stream were working-class boys like myself, while a higher ratio of middle-class boys filled the upper streams and wore blazers which never seemed to grow shabby like mine. The love I’d felt for the uniform had evaporated and I never got a new one from Horne Bros again; when my old coat needed replacing my mother could only afford to buy cheap black blazers, onto which she hand sewed the school badge and the tri-colour cuff bands: black on one outer edge, red in the middle, and chrome yellow on the other edge. One year when mam was doing this job, instead of using yellow thread to sew the yellow band, she used the same black thread she’d used on the black band. To compound my horror, the black stitches, dramatically highlighted against the bright yellow ribbon, were so unevenly spaced and threaded with such an unconscious lack of dexterity they could have been the work of a primate learning how to sew. I was mortified to be seen out wearing the results of her handiwork, but there was no choice, it was my only jacket for school; the shame had to be borne.

The bourgeois ethos of Cardinal Allen played an insidious role in the devaluation of my sense of self and was supplemented from day to day by the state of the second-hand clothes I wore, which were frequently unwashed. Once I brought home a form seeking parental authorization for the school nurse to rid my hair of a lice infestation, but my father, his shame presumably overpowering his common sense, refused to sign it. Such private humiliations drained away my self-esteem and influenced how I felt about myself for years afterwards. A telling incident occurred in my mid-twenties when for a while I was courting a woman who was just coming off a successful modelling career. One afternoon when we were gadding about the city centre I spotted my mother at the opposite end of the street we were on; the prospect of my glamorous companion discovering that the dowdy old pensioner approaching us was my mother tipped me into a mindless panic at the thought of the impression it would make on her. Mam was short sighted and I was too far away for her to have seen me; I fled with no explanation, dragging my partner through a side entrance of a nearby Marks & Spencer. Mam had looked frail and worn out, and the way she was dressed, with her threadbare coat, headscarf knotted under her chin and her arms folded across her abdomen, right hand wrapped around her limp left wrist, shopping bag hanging off the crook of her arm, all said poor working class. The stigma of class, implanted in my consciousness during my years at Cardinal Allen, haunted me more deeply than I could measure, and I was too young to appreciate it for the chimera it was. Be that as it may, the shame at how I behaved that day has never left me.

There were the usual parent and teacher meetings, sports days, drama productions and the like, normal fare for any school, which parents were encouraged to attend. My father, sans mother, had made it to only one of these, a parents’ meeting for new students. In his address from the assembly hall stage Canon Kieran informed his audience that, “At this school we play rugby.” My dad, a supporter of the city’s second soccer club, Everton F.C., responded to the Canon’s proclamation by piping up, “Shame!”. My mother and father never questioned me about what the school was like, neither did they express any interest in the curriculum or how I was being treated at school. Invitations to social events such as sports days, plays, etc., were ignored; it wasn’t too long before I began tearing up the invitations and throwing them away. But non-attendance was no bad thing, I thought, as mam and dad would definitely not have fitted in. Around the time I started at the school my parents’ marriage was beginning to buckle, which served only to increase the speed of my downward trajectory.

Regardless of whatever class I was in, I daydreamed for England and more often than not skipped homework. I was so unhappy I couldn’t learn anything and was regarded as a lost cause. My marks from end-of-term exams were always poor and I was invariably marked down to the bottom of the class. However, one winter term, about half way through my sojourn at Cardinal Allen, I rewrote the script: I can’t recall why at this remove, but I resolved to do my homework every night for the entire term and, as much as I was able to, pay attention in class. I had a single-bar electric fire to warm me in the freezing bedroom where I did my studying; I had no desk, just an old chair on which to put my exercise books, with my text books propped up against the backrest. When I came home from school I poured a cup of stewed tea and went to my bedroom and diligently worked through my homework. It paid a dividend: my marks from the end-of-term exams improved so significantly that when they were tallied I came third out of a class of 30. But this dramatic elevation went unnoticed and made no impression on my teachers or my parents. It was as if I didn’t exist.

The happy child I used to be was now history. In the fashion of the time I grew my hair long and was hounded almost daily to get it cut. I evolved into an anti-social element, got into fights, and took to stealing money at lunchtimes from other children’s blazers hung on the coat racks in a hallway off the playground while their owners played football. If I got into trouble I lied my way out of it with a skill that impressed even myself. I led a small team of successful thieves and two or three times a week we descended on different bookstores in the city centre to rob them of some of their more expensive wares, which were resold within the hour to second-hand bookstores. We also stole paperbacks to order and disposed of them at knockdown prices to classmates. I can’t remember buying anything other than chocolate with my ill-gotten gains. Our little enterprise was broken up when a passenger on the bus we were travelling on into the city overheard my friend Kelly and I discussing the larceny we were bent on; the school was subsequently contacted by this stranger and a description of the two crooks and their nefarious intentions supplied. The easily identifiable Kelly was summoned: under pressure he owned up to his criminality, but good friend that he was he didn’t snitch on me. My only decent pal was expelled but I brazened my way through my own interrogation, denying complicity so emphatically that Father Joe, assistant headmaster and my cross-examiner, who was convinced I was Kelly’s partner in crime, was unable to extract a confession of guilt and stepped back from expelling me too. Later that day I discretely disposed of a complete set of James Bond novels I’d hidden under the mattress in my bedroom.

Father Joe, with his marble eyes and pock-marked skin, had been on my case from the year zero. Bald, dome-headed, height-challenged and thick waisted, he taught Religious Instruction and was a one-man Inquisition. He lectured always in a chillingly soft voice, but he was an arid, self-righteous pedagogue. The only antidote to his interminable droning was staring mindlessly at the bubbles of foam lodged at the corners of his mouth, or locking onto the string of spittle clinging to the centre of his top and bottom lip, watching it stretch and shrink as he talked, waiting for it to soundlessly snap. When he wasn’t in the classroom or his windowless office he could be spotted ghosting about the school, a breviary lodged against his breastbone, his lips moving soundlessly in the obligatory reading of the daily hours of Roman Catholic prayer. I was forever scanning the horizon to ensure I kept at a safe distance from him; if I entered his field of vision the only thing he saw was non-regulation length hair; I would be summoned and ordered to report to his office the following morning before classes kicked off. And there I would appear, on the carpet, a dishevelled youth who had obviously gone off the rails, to be criticized and berated for being whatever form of low-life he considered me to be; as he never tired of pointing out, I was a disgrace to the uniform. My mother’s growing dislocation and the loss of her affection was wearing beyond understanding, and daily confinement in an institution which could find only negative value in me, compounded by Father Joe’s regular doses of contempt, wore away whatever self-assurance I still possessed. He was a vile man whose intolerance of what he thought constituted aberrant behaviour was absolute: one day this shepherd of souls discovered two boys kissing in the bushes at the edge of the playing fields, and for this manifestation of adolescent libido had them expelled.

On the final day of my incarceration, aged 16, the school population was ordered to assemble in the chapel after lunch for Benediction, but I’d had Cardinal Allen up to my eye teeth: in the company of a handful of other sinners I exited the playground via the gate to the sports fields, on the far side of which was a bus stop where we were going to catch a bus to freedom. But we’d been spotted: as we sauntered across the grass Father Joe came bustling through the gate, hailing us and shouting that we should come back in for the Benediction; I turned and gave him the finger and, as nonchalantly as I could contrive, continued walking. Into the wilderness as it happens, but I wasn’t to know it then.

The institutional indifference to my welfare mirrored the quality of my home life, but it hadn’t always been like this; there were times, before I passed the 11-plus, when I was part of what seems to me now to be a well-adjusted family. I recall a party held in our small living room (it may have been my birthday), sitting at two tables joined together, happy in the company of friends and gorging on the nice things to eat, and just generally enjoying myself. I remember walking the Wirral sands with my mam and Auntie Chrissie and swishing my bare feet through the puddles left by the ebb tide of the River Dee. Mam took me on occasional social calls to relatives I never knew we had and who I never seemed to meet again; and to the open air Paddy’s Market on Saturday mornings, where I saw dark-skinned seamen from South Asia, with their boxy little hats and straggly beards – I’d never seen anyone like them before, not even in books; I stuck close to mam as she and the Muslim sailors picked through old clothes spread out on ground cloths and tables. One bitterly cold Saturday we sought refuge in a steamy café in the only building left standing on a bombed-out street at the edge of the market; I drank sweet tea and ate hot buttered toast while mam smoked a Woodbine and sipped her tea from a saucer.

The most precious memory of my mother is of my little sister and I, very young, sitting on the floor by a dying coal fire in our living-room, hugging mam’s legs and begging her to tell us about when she was a bare-foot ragamuffin roaming the Scottie Road markets scavenging for discarded fruit and vegetables to take home. My dad once took me on a tour of the Town Hall, proudly showing me his pew on the Labour Party side of the council chamber. When I was 10 years old he was the then Chairman of the Watch Committee, the body which monitored the activities of the police, and he took me to the Liverpool City Police Annual Sports Day, but I wouldn’t let up nagging him to make sure he got us home in time to watch Brazil play Sweden in the World Cup Final (Brazil 5, Sweden 2; I supported Sweden). But then life, as it does, began to unravel.

The anguish of not being loved by the man who had fathered her four children, and the anger that fed her heartache, flared up with seismic regularity after mam and dad’s weekly outing to The Nook, the Chinese ‘local’ just around the corner from where we lived. Mixing alcohol with a daily cocktail of prescription drugs, as mam did, turned her into a ticking time-bomb. Regular as clockwork, every Saturday night 23B Grenville Street transformed into an inferno: I’d hear them coming up the stairs from the street after the pubs had shut, mam’s hectoring voice and dad’s silence; my mother’s implacable anger seeming to increase in volume the nearer she got to our flat on the top floor. Fuelled as it was by the alcohol and drugs and the unremitting pain of not being loved by this man she was chained to, her savagery never seemed to abate. I would cower in my bedroom, afraid her anger might direct itself toward me; “Clever dick!” she’d sometimes snarl when she was in this state; I was “a brainy little shit”, cut from the same cloth as the man she raged against.

There were days when I came home from school to an ominous silence in the flat, and the first thing I’d think was that mam was on the drink, and if dad was at work on a 2-till-10 shift I’d be consumed with a dreadful foreboding. The bleakness of those evenings is burned into me: the kitchen cupboard hardly ever contained more than part of a sliced white loaf of Mother’s Pride, some margarine, white sugar and a bottle of sterilized milk; I’d spread some marge over a slice of bread, sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar over it, then fold it in half to make a sandwich; they were hungry hours, waiting for mam to come home, growing ever more fearful. I kept station in my bedroom so I could scan Hardy Street and Nelson Street from the window, straining my eyes to see if I could spot her passing under one of the street lamps, but I never did.

I would be asleep when she finally got home but I’d snap awake to hear her screaming and roaring, boiling over as she was with a madness of drink and chemicals. Once, her cries were so terrifying I rushed out of my bedroom to see her spread-eagled on the hallway floor, incapable, sobbing, and screeching hysterically, her clothes soiled and in complete disarray, unable to get to her feet. Her eyes were so gone she had no idea I was there; it was the worst of nightmares, to see my mother in this harrowing state; lying in bed, scorched by her grief, I cried and cried, my heart in shreds. On another night like this, when mam’s craziness was scaring us all witless, my big sister ran down to the church to seek help; she returned with Father Mulhearn, a young Irish priest. I don’t remember him coming into my bedroom, but I can see him kneeling at my bedside; he may have held my hands in his, he could have wiped away my tears, but I can’t say I recall him doing this, but I do remember his wiry hair and the paleness of his face in the dark. What I recall, vividly, is his comforting presence rather than what he may have said or done; his gentleness was strong medicine for my child’s heart. On nights like this dad would sometimes come in to the bedroom and tell me to get dressed, then he’d take me out of it, with mam drunkenly sneering us out the door; we’d walk the streets until he decided we could go back home. I don’t remember us having any conversation on these nocturnal ramblings, I recall only being rescued and wandering with my dad in the night; it was a rare act of kindness, to keep me by him when my mother’s pain was razing all before it.

In these traumatic years of early adolescence I did have a sanctuary of sorts: the Windsor Street Library, a single-storey Edwardian pile built in 1902, just across the road from my playground cemetery behind the Anglican cathedral on Saint James Mount, the highest ground in the city. Once or twice during the week after school and on Saturdays I trekked up to Windsor Street Library. I was at ease there as I never was anywhere else; it was a welcoming place for me, a haven, and a rare thing for me to experience at this period of my life. Its patrons hailed from the surrounding dockside communities and the local neighbourhoods, which teemed with immigrants from all around the Caribbean, what was then East and West Pakistan, Yemen, South China, and from all over Africa. (As a young man I occasionally visited the Ibo Club on Prince’s Avenue for an after-hours drink, one of three late-night watering holes catering to the three dominant tribes in Nigeria; I once bumped into my younger sister having a drink at the bar with a friend). The nearest posh kids lived miles away and would never fetch up in Windsor Street.

The ambience inside the library fitted me like a glove: the absence of racket, the orderliness, the sheer range of books I could browse, and the courteous librarians who treated me with the respect due to a serious reader. It was there I discovered Richmal Crompton’s William Brown stories, and the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge; these eponymous heroes revealingly located in the idealized village life of middle-class England between the Wars, “a bucolic heaven of stability and harmless fun,” as Wikipedia aptly describes it. Taking refuge in the library was, I suppose, a form of therapy I conjured for myself during hard times. When my younger sister died suddenly after a long illness, I returned to the city to mourn her passing and be with her four children. On a late autumn afternoon I made a pilgrimage to Windsor Street, hoping to step inside the library again; but it was not to be, it was being refurbished and was closed to the public. I stepped across the road and stood for a few minutes in the cold trying as best I could to see what could be seen through its grand windows: newly installed gyproc walls and decorators’ scaffolding. Even so, in the growing dusk the light from inside seemed to warm my corner of the chilly street.

Windsor Street 1956

The children’s section of Windsor Street public library; 1956.

My father’s political activism took precedence over everything and generally he showed little interest in his family. In his last, desolate days he told his protégé and only surviving friend, Jack Evans, that his greatest regret was that he hadn’t devoted more time to his family. He was a proud auto-didact and an influential cadre in the highest echelon of the city’s Labour Party; he told me once that he’d never lost any election he stood in. He was a life-long agitator for the rights of the working poor, and as a young man I would occasionally meet people socially who, if they discovered my family name was Carr, would say, “You wouldn’t be related to Hughie Carr by any chance would you?” When I said he was my father, a warmth would suddenly come off them and they might relate how Hughie had once organized them in some worthy cause and led them in battle against Tory bureaucrats. At the peak of his political career he was a whisper away from being crowned with the mayoralty, but stepped back from the office after his wife went on a drunken rampage at a Town Hall reception for Princess Margaret. There was some talk of my elder sister taking on the Lady Mayoress’s role, but it came to nothing.

My mother, Cissie Moore, was born in a parish workhouse and never knew her father. In an echo of her mother’s promiscuity she was single when she became pregnant by my dad and, given the times, the only option would have been marriage; no photographs of the occasion have ever surfaced, so my guess is that it wasn’t a happy event for either bride or groom. She bore Hughie three more children. Feeding and clothing a family of six on a factory worker’s wage, week in, week out, and living with a man who took no interest in her was, in the fullness of time, to tax her sanity. It must have been all too easy to succumb to the enticing numbness offered by prescription drugs, ‘Mummy’s little helpers’ as a pop song of the time described them, being doled out by GPs in the early 1960s. After coming home from school I was often the messenger boy, sent across Great George’s Square to Dr O’Donnell’s or Dr Coakley’s surgery to ask for mam’s prescription to be refilled. Given the ruin being stored up from the unrestricted prescribing of highly addictive narcotics it’s no surprise that my mother’s health deteriorated in the way it did.

Mam’s ill-nourished body, fuelled with toxins that destroyed appetite, broke down so many times it came to be regarded within the family as an unexceptional occurrence; when she lost the capacity to function normally she was hospitalized, and sometimes confined to the same ward as the mentally ill. One bleak Xmas Day, when I was 12 or 13, I watched, paralyzed with fear, as she slipped into a coma sitting in her armchair in the living-room; Dr Coakley was phoned, he came quickly, and when he saw her condition called for an ambulance; she was taken to Smithdown Road Hospital and put in Ward 26, the dumping ground for the deranged. My brother-in-law offered what he may have thought was a charitable explanation for these endless breakdowns, that they were caused by her body not being strong enough to cope with the menopause. No one had ever spoken to me about what was happening to mam, so this emollient fiction stood because I was too young to understand what was really happening. I don’t know why it took me so long to understand that mam’s agony stemmed from the life-long pain of knowing she was unloved by her husband; the anguish this caused her was unendurable. Being abandoned by her father and, in a different fashion, by my dad would, I can see, have driven her mad – with grief – but the electro convulsive therapy (ECT) she underwent during each of her hospitalizations was considered the only viable approach to treating the lesions in her psyche. My father signed the consent forms for the treatment but, given the times and the general ignorance of the kind of damage that can be done to the brain when it’s repeatedly zapped with high voltage current, he would have thought he was doing the right thing.

As she got older and each of her children left home, the drugs began to take a back seat, and as the years disappeared so did they; in the course of time the drinking was given up and her nicotine habit fell away; she couldn’t smoke a cigarette to the end anymore, she told me, the taste was too unpleasant. Her brain had been fried, her body was shrunken and skeletal, but against all odds her marriage survived; Cissie continued to care for her husband far into his retirement. After yet another breakdown and routine hospitalization, she suffered a massive heart attack in the darkest hour of the night and died, alone.

I reached the city the following day. My elder sister told me that all mam had with her when she went into hospital were the clothes she had on, a small oval medal of the Virgin Mary and a tiny, worn white plastic purse, which she handed to me. I unbuttoned it and removed some tightly folded pieces of greying paper disintegrating at the creases and carefully opened them out: they were two undated letters from me telling her I was thinking of her; my head dropped and I cried like a baby.

Who was he,
that young man?
And this old man
now, who is he?

I have answers
to both questions,
but only of a sort,
nothing absolute.

I have fathomed
what I’ve let go of
and what this
has led me to,

but as the end nears
is there any point
to dancing with
ghosts and shadows?

There is solace
in quiet time,
when I close my eyes
amid the clamour.

I am quite still then,
but it’s as noisy
inside as it is out;
but I can allow that.

In the hush
of zazen,
inhaling and

my concentration
becomes so careless
of the commotion
it barely registers.

Rose petals

Walking in the park with my dog
I watch a cloud embracing the moon
in an inky starlit sky.

Sometimes left brain leads,
sometimes the right;
but both are dead ends.

There is a space in-between
where I come to rest,
though this idea is delusional.

The rubbish going back and forth
through the corpus collosum
slows to a trickle when I sit.

Sitting, the noise diminishes
to almost nothing;
as with the breath.

I sit in an unnameable place,
discarding whatever arises;
I am merely a visitor here.

I rest with nothing;
I have nothing;
I am nothing.

The minutes pass,
the days pass,
I will pass


How is it possible
to talk with anyone
about this?



Where I stood

I stood
by the music stand
near the Buddhas
and the potted plants,
looking through
powerful binoculars
at the full moon,
brightening the sky;
then in a flash
two black bullets
shot across the lens;
a pair of crows
travelling fast,
all energy
and avian consciousness.

Early yesterday
I stood
on an empty back road
watching Caoimhe
sniffing and peeing
his way along the verges.
I stood motionless
in the dark,
hands in my pockets
with the wind
washing my face,
waiting, waiting
for Caoimhe to finish
before going home
to the mat.



The Blackbird

I take Caoimhe out to the old railway track early each morning for his walk: the first thing I do is hurl his ball along the path; he runs after it, grabs it in his teeth, runs back and drops it at my feet, or close by, then crouches in the dirt, waiting for it to be thrown again; repeat ad nauseum. The track is a lovely, hidden away place: you’ll know about it if you live around here but not if you’re just passing through. Weed smothered stanchions that once supported the old station platform remain along part of the track but there are no other clues to what used to be there. Tall trees, many choked with ivy, arc over the walker. After rain there is mud to step in and puddles to splash through; on sunny mornings blue sky and cotton wool clouds draw my attention upwards. One morning a few days ago I saw a blackbird poised on the stem of a vein-thin sapling: it hung there, perfectly balanced, perfectly still, and appeared to be gazing skywards. Caoimhe, body flattened in the dirt, waited for me to throw his ball, but the blackbird, unperturbed by the proximity of man and dog, held my attention. It was a cold, windless day, and except for drifting clouds there was no movement from anything anywhere. I waited for the little black bird to fly away, but apart from turning its head a couple of times, it remained motionless. What was holding us both in momentary suspension? The usual indescribable mysteries animating life and consciousness. I turned away and walked on, throwing Caoimhe’s ball along the track.

It’s so strange that I can write this, and feel that my years have no width
or length, have no dimension at all, just the downturn of a bird’s wing.
So quick, so quick.”[1]

Dearest Owain
Your reaching 16 is a landmark of sorts. It’s the minimum age for joining the army and learning how to kill people in war zones, which, mercifully, you’ve expressed no inclination to do. As your birthday approached I began thinking about how this age was also a turning point in my own life, but in quite a different way. I hope you don’t mind if I take you a little bit through the ruins of my childhood.

While I was out walking with Caoimhe an old memory of my young self came alive: a little boy, dressed in his first ever school uniform, setting out on the biggest adventure of his 11-year old life, but without knowledge or awareness of what was in store for him. His new school was quite a distance from home, an hour long journey on two buses, but that didn’t faze him. He’d been led to believe he was going to a better school, but in a weirdly brief span of time his better education was shredded and his ordered world razed.

I was a poor fit in a system that abhorred all things working-class and this repugnance for the culture I came from was so oppressive I lost buoyancy and flunked the tests used to grade new students; dumped in the lowest stream I drifted under the academic radar for five miserable years. The daily humiliations, the derision from teachers that deprived me of a proper go at education was more psychologically damaging than I could then appreciate; the pain is still there, inadequately buried, and, as you know, it can erupt sometimes and then its’ ferocity shames me.[2]

The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed.[3]

One day near the end of my five years of grammar school I was hanging out in a place that had become a refuge, the city’s enormous Picton Library: I was supposed to be revising for final exams, but wasn’t — I didn’t know how to, I had no system, no strategy, no one to advise me how to do what I should have been doing. Craving distraction I gravitated to the 6th floor Art Library where I spent the afternoon making my way through a shelf of books devoted to the work of European and American cartoonists, but I don’t recall their humour having much effect; all I wanted was for this chapter of my life to end.

Still unemployed at the end of the summer holidays I saw my good friend Margo McDermott off to university in Nottingham and as we said our goodbyes at the railway station it seemed to me she was entering an exclusive world, one I could never be a part of, because I wasn’t clever enough. It took decades to overturn that view of myself and see it for the nonsense it was.

You are the same age now that I was in the melancholy episode I describe above. I was proud of you when you aced your National 5’s, but now the next set of important exams loom, your Prelims, the dry run for the Highers, and I have begun worrying again because you have spent so much of the holidays playing your chanter and your pipes and neglecting, to a degree, the more academic subjects that need your attention. Your mum is more sanguine than me and thinks that not doing as well as you could in the Prelims might be a wake-up call… but I can’t bear the thought of you not doing well, even here, because the prospect of it rekindles desperate memories of my own academic failure; but then you are not me, so I hope for the best.


The motivation for writing this letter to you comes from thinking about how my childhood has surreptitiously mingled with yours in ways I’ve rarely thought to talk about. Something I tried to explain to your mum, poorly as it happened, is the feeling of wanting, even needing, to be physically present at home when you finish school for the day, an impulse that has its origins in the hard times I endured during puberty and early adolescence:

 . . .they were hungry hours, waiting, growing ever more fearful. I kept station in my bedroom so I could scan the lengths of Hardy Street and Nelson Street from the window, straining my eyes to see if I could spot mam passing under one of the street lights on her way home, but I never did. I would be asleep when she finally got back but I’d snap awake to her screaming and roaring, boiling over as she was with a madness of drink, amphetamines and barbiturates.[4]

The despair that consumed me waiting for mam to come home was like nothing I’d ever known; I ached for her to be there but I was so frightened, of the condition she’d be in and the violent abuse that would rain down on my dad if he wasn’t on shift work that night. As I lay in bed trying to sleep, I’d listen for the sound of a key in the front door, always in vain it seems. Resolving to be at home for you after school I realise is a reflex response to a trauma which, remote though it is, has never been assuaged. That you take my presence at home for granted isn’t important, it is the being there that matters; it’s an over-the-shoulder look back, a displaced longing for what I ought to have had as a child but never got: security, stability, love. So when you return from school it’s a good fit for me to be at home; being there signifies security and stability, and love.


Do you remember when you were very young and our insatiable addiction to storybooks took a near fatal hit when the neighbourhood library in West Point Gray closed its doors because Vancouver’s librarians had gone on strike? Consternation reigned until I discovered that as the partner of a PhD student I was allowed free use of any of the University of British Columbia’s libraries and was entitled to take home a maximum of 50 items on one borrower’s card! I figured we might get lucky at the Faculty of Education Library, just a short walk from where we were living on campus. Our first visit to the library’s windowless basement where the children’s materials were stored was a shocker: walking the aisles, glancing left and right at stacks jam packed with thousands of children stories from all over the world, I realised we’d stumbled upon the motherlode. Of course we were soon devoted patrons; and your system for exploring the stock was simplicity itself: you ransacked the lower shelves while I investigated the upper ones, and using this felicitous method we unearthed many scarce out of print gems only to be found in the gold mine we were digging in. As well as showing you how to handle these precious texts I taught you how to return the books to the shelves using the classification system that libraries use. At the checkout desk the women librarians — not the men as I recall — always had time for a chat with the very young patron who availed himself of so much of their treasure. Sometimes our haul was so bountiful I could barely hoist my backpack.


All the Canadian years of putting you to bed we were never short of story books, and after a story songs to lead you into the Land of Nod. I learned a lot of folk songs when I was a young man and entertained you with them all, and when my repertoire was exhausted I’d sing Sanskrit mantras, sang them as softly as lullabies, repeating them again and again; and Buddhist chants; anything I thought might beguile you into sleeping.

My mam and dad never read me stories at bedtime, or any other time; I put myself to bed and lay alone as I drifted off to sleep. Being with you in your bed, with your little body fitting snugly into mine, reading, giggling, singing, was like visiting another planet. Our tenderness and intimacy affected me more than I can say; such graces had disappeared in the moil of family history and were absent from my childhood. Your great grandmother is the only marker I have of a distant past: she was a shadow on the edge of my little life and my memories of her in her Council flat on Grafton Street have only ever been sketchy: when I was in her company she never budged from her armchair and never spoke to me directly, and why she wasn’t tempted to give her son’s infant boy a cuddle heaven only knows. Her behaviour I think points to the mores of the times, when physical displays of affection were less common than they are now. I had a more meaningful relationship with Polly, her parrot, than I did with grandma. As for her son and daughter-in-law, your paternal grandparents, it wasn’t that they didn’t love your dad — they did in their own feckless way — it was that they simply couldn’t, either by voice or gesture, convey loving feelings; how could they share with their children what hadn’t been given to them by their own parents? Hand in hand with you, wandering the streets of Hong Kong, the old ladies in Gage Street market giving you peanuts and flowers, getting you started at school in Vancouver, waiting to collect you afterwards, dawdling on our way home, feeding you, watching you play, making whole worlds with your toys; loving you, being loved. . . these simple acts of endearment had a lasting effect on me: the cavities of my own childhood will remain forever, but I am not chained to the glooms the way I once was; I have you to thank for that severance.

Becoming your dad ended an emotional dwarfism that could have gone on forever. You have no idea how afraid I was at the prospect of becoming a father again, and how relentless your mum was in wearing down my resistance. After our five year search and the miracle of your appearance, it was then I became a believer: you came, I saw, I was conquered.


It was impossible to persuade you not to spend all your pocket money on hoary Communist texts. All the same it shocked me that at the age of 14 or so you could happily spend Saturday afternoons foraging among the leviathans of the Left in Edinburgh’s second-hand book shops. I took a look at your bookshelves recently and among the classics of children’s literature I saw the writings of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung; numerous texts by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin; the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci; a biography of Fidel Castro; and when I was making your bed, next to your pillow were two books by Karl Marx, one by Noam Chomsky, and the first volume of a two-part graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion in China. And amongst the clutter on the table below your bunk bed a biography of Clement Attlee, the post-war Labour leader who brought a social revolution to the country. Hughie Carr’s DNA does seem to sit easily with you; your paternal grandfather, radical socialist and activist, would be grinning in his grave if he knew what you’d been reading.

But it’s an awfully sad fact that your grandad’s addiction to politics removed him from his family so much it made him impossible to love. When his job at Bibby’s seed crushing mill allowed, he’d be out in his suit and tie — and the shoes I’d shined — to attend this or that meeting (at different times he was the Chair of various City Council committees and was also his union’s shop steward), or he’d be grappling with issues around the city and making speeches to local residents in community halls.[5] When the tub thumping and shenanigans in the recent General Election campaign were in full swing, with the media saturated with hot air and commotion, you were forever soliciting my opinions on the politics, but I wouldn’t be drawn, wouldn’t respond to your probing (I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the televised debates between the Party leaders). Choking off discussion with you when you were so interested in what was going on was mean — and irrational, I began to think — but I just couldn’t talk about the stuff you wanted to talk about. But why did I feel so shamefaced? Brief answer: bad history, recoil from when my dad and his Socialism contributed to the ruination of the family he was the head of. Deprived of her father’s love, my older sister went mad, becoming estranged from her son in the process and driving her youngest daughter to the doors of Bedlam; my brother turned very cold and cut himself off from his birth family. Neither of my older siblings have spoken to me for years, or to my four nieces (or their children), whose mother they wouldn’t have anything to do with when she was alive. The old Labour Party sits stage centre in a swirl of agitated memories, a karmic ghost (or is it a hangover?) which haunts me even now at my advanced age. Still, in the midst of the recent General Election ferment something curative ensued: each morning while I was doing my calisthenics and you and your mum were having breakfast, you’d both be locked in heated debate about the merits or otherwise of politicians and policies; the white noise of you two going at it, oddly enough, took the weight off my guilt.

Speaking of breakfasts, this morning I took a look at what was waiting for you on the dining room table: two slices of wholewheat toast (bread made by yours truly), organic butter, a jar of lemon curd and one of homemade jam, chunks of papaya drenched in lime juice, and a small bowl of blueberries. What I remember most about food when I was your age was the lack of it: I can’t remember ever having anything for breakfast other than a slice of folded over white bread spread with margarine, which I washed down with a cup of sugary tea; by mid-morning I’d be ravenous. It’s your good fortune to be fed, clothed, and housed and this isn’t something you need to give a second thought to; you are cared for because you are loved.


There were times earlier in my life when I was susceptible to sudden explosions of violence. Being on the receiving end of snide verbal abuse, for example, would be tantamount to pressing an Unleash Mayhem button; offensive road users, that would sometimes do it too. My loss of self-control would be instantaneous and would vaporise the common sense that could rein in a meltdown; afterwards I’d be consumed with vexation and shame at my transmutation into a hair-trigger hooligan. Anger is often a front for historical pain, as it was for me. The emotional mechanics of my rowdyism were deconstructed with the help of the programmes of the Arica School,[6] but they have not been entirely dismantled, as our frequent spats — even fights on occasion — can testify. I wish I shared mum’s inexhaustible patience because all too often I erupt with insufficient cause, as you’ve repeatedly witnessed. But there is no more mayhem, that warp in my character was ironed out by marriage, and the years I spent looking after you when you were very young. Remember in Vancouver cycling through the forest every morning to your lovely school with its teachers you liked so much? And how about those incredible football matches I organised in Acadia Park where you played alongside kids from Africa, Canada, China, India, Iran, Ireland, Nepal, several countries in the Middle East, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan![7] A while ago mum mentioned to me that Renée, our old friend in Hong Kong, told her about something she’d witnessed during the Human Rights in China reunion in France a few years ago which left an impression on her: she had observed you and I in an angry altercation, but after the dust had settled I’d gone back to you to apologise for my behaviour. She’d never seen that before, she said, a parent openly climbing down and apologising to a child. I can’t recollect the quarrel — there have been so many — but I do recall my atonement: what I did might have appeared exceptional to Renée but by my lights it wasn’t; it was merely a desire for peace instead of war. You seem to have developed that same ability, by osmosis I think, of being able to say “Sorry” when you need to. And when either of us needs to atone in this way we seal the peace with an embrace.


Whenever I scrolled down the screen to enter a reference text for an endnote I’d see a single word marooned above the notes: ‘Calderstones.’ I’d left it there as a pointer to a memory from early childhood I wanted to say something about, but as this letter took shape I couldn’t find a place for it, but then another part of me was sure it fitted but the words that would solve the puzzle of inclusion were too elusive just then. This little fishhook memory took up an unusual amount of emotional space; on the surface it seemed inconsequential but as I thought more about what it might signify, it became less cryptic and I began to understand why it had remained lodged in my mind, or do I mean my heart. . .

You know I was brought up (or dragged up, if you like) in Liverpool’s inner city, within spitting distance of the river and the old spice warehouses, and within earshot of the clacking of mah jong tiles. Our street hadn’t yet been covered with tar macadam and we took our coal deliveries off a horse and cart. The neighbourhood was a maze of dilapidated Georgian housing and small craft workshops, all of which suffered during the Luftwaffe’s blitzkrieg of 1941. Living close to the dock basins, the target of the air raids, the streets of our community were littered with what we called ‘bommies,’ places where bombs which had overshot their targets fell to earth; these derelict sites were our playgrounds.

Three sides of Great George’s Square (laid out in the reign of Mad King George III and named after him), consisted of decrepit but still imposing Georgian houses; on the fourth side of the Square stood a block of Council flats built on the wartime ruins of a Polish boarding house. We lived in a third floor flat in the block, with my bedroom overlooking an incongruous artefact: a municipal bowling green in the central space of the Square, known locally as ‘The Bowlie’.

The Bowling Green

The Bowlie

Before my expulsion to the leafy suburbs to attend grammar school I walked to my neighbourhood school every day; on some mornings, as I turned into Upper Frederick Street, I’d spot a line of empty Routemaster buses parked up at the bottom of the street: they were waiting to transport the entire school to Calderstones Park.

I lived in the shadow of a great cathedral amid a rackety world of soot blackened bricks and crumbling mortar and cobblestones and coal fires; knowledge, such as it was, came from my father’s newspapers; we didn’t have a television and I had no books at home, or any points of reference for the immense spaciousness and verdancy of Calderstones — 126 acres of it. The only sprouting things within my ken were the sparsely grassed lawns and shrubbery of The Bowlie. My recollection of visiting Calderstones is a little surreal in that I’ve managed to erase classmates and teachers; I see only myself, a very young visitor, 8 or 9 years old, sizing up Calderstones’ trees, of which there seemed to be an inconceivable number; they were of every shape and size and probably magical. Walking on the lusciously green grass was a pleasure I could not then, or even now, describe; and the sky was massive and uninterrupted. Scanty though these recollections may be, they are the nut of my reminiscence: it was the ambience of the park I remember so vividly, and the happiness I felt being able to roam in that pastoral space. The atrocious hurts of the following years, at grammar school and at home, have fogged the happy moments of an earlier life, but my childish rapture in Calderstones has stitched itself so affectingly into memory I wonder if it might have been my first experience of joy.


I’d said nothing about where I thought we ought to go, merely that a walk would help heal the rift triggered by our fight about whether to stay and watch our team, Liverpool FC, show off their Champion’s League trophy from an open-top bus on their diesel driven crawl along the Dock Road, or catch an early train back to Edinburgh and bypass the crowds and monstrous clamour, and miss seeing the team return from their victory in Madrid. You were shocked sick that I’d even dream of contemplating such a thing! Of course if they were beaten in the Final there’d be nothing to get shirty about, we’d just leave Leander’s the next day and get the train home at the time stated on the tickets. But they won; the first thing we did was fight about my wish to avoid the homecoming ballyhoo, then came your disgust with my attitude; and your looks! They were as black as molasses. The entire city would be out to welcome the return of the Champions of Europe, and as it was a snail’s pace, snaky 10-mile drive to the city centre who knew what time the bus would get to our neck of the woods? I went to the station early next morning and changed our tickets to get the last possible train home to give us the best chance of witnessing the holy procession. You agreed a walk would be helpful in restoring amity.

The majority of the parks in Edinburgh are, as you know, large, flat, featureless acres of grass bordered with single lines of trees; they are popular with dog walkers and kids playing football and other sports, but the park I thought I would take you to was nothing like that. My idea was to take you out to Aigburth, a distant suburb and the farthest extent of Sefton Park, then walk the park’s length back toward the city and catch another bus for the short journey to Leander’s house.

Spread over 235 acres, Sefton Park[8] resembles a natural landscape more than it does a man-made park; it is extraordinarily beautiful. Innumerable meandering footpaths cut through stands of trees and curve around uncountable hills and knolls; there is a jewel of a lake fed by two separate watercourses, which are even furnished with stepping stones; the wayfarer passes wooden lodges, various follies, shelters, and a little way off the well-trodden paths there is a grand Victorian palm house; and at the farthest edge of the park there are even a few featureless acres where football can be played. The park was built when Liverpool was the second city of Empire and I’ve always loved it.

After feeding you at the Boathouse kiosk at the park entrance we set off on our walk in good spirits, with you happily demolishing an ice-cream. It hadn’t taken long to restore peaceful relations — we managed to do it on the bus ride. As we sauntered along the paths, the intimate spaces of the park began to reveal themselves but I refrained from chatter; I was absorbed in exploring a part of the city with you that you hadn’t known existed; I think the sun may have even been shining. During the summer after my final exams at grammar school, unemployed and penniless, without educational or job prospects of any kind, the park was a haven for me and my friends and we went there often on sunny afternoons on the lookout for girls who were on the lookout for boys. But as you and I walked, me silently appraising the familiar little nooks and dells and bridges from my youth, the park seemed to be in a much better state than it had been in my adolescence. Walking with Caoimhe around the two parks where we live I’m forever picking up and binning all manner of crapacious trash, but on this day in Sefton park I was aware of the miraculous absence of litter. I felt a speechless gratitude that this bucolic paradise for city dwellers, an arcadia for whoever wished to partake of it, was being looked after so well. At one point you turned to me, your eyes bright and with what I’d swear was a look of reverence on your face, and said, “This park is beautiful!” Not your exact words, but the gist of your reaction to the unspoiled place I’d brought you to. I doubt you got the full measure of how happy I was.

In this letter I’ve told you about some of my demons; they will never leave me and will only disappear when I do, but I have also spoken of how I have been enriched by being your father. You’re fast becoming a man and in your becoming I put trust in your imagination to breathe life into your dreams.

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?[9]

Owain reading


[1] On Canaan’s Side; p.206; Sebastian Barry; published by Faber and Faber; 2011.
[2] Failing Better; posted February 2018.
[3] The Bluest Eye; Toni Morrison; published by Vintage; 1970.
[4] It is what it is, #I, #II & #III; posted December 2010.
[5] Ibid
[6] Oscar Ichazo killed my teeth; posted November 2012.
[7] The Great Game; posted November 2014.
[8] Sefton Park is rated Grade 1 in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
[9] The Hall of Uselessness; Collected Essays; p.113; Chesterton: The Poet Who Dances with a Hundred Legs; Simon Leys; published by New York Review of Books; 2013.