Other Lives, Other Worlds
Something we should all keep in our bottom drawer in case we ever need it.
I write stories. That’s something all of you will know about me. But maybe you would like to know why I do that. Why don’t I have a proper job?
Well, whether you would like to know or not I’m going to tell you.
It started a very long time ago. I really do mean a very long time ago. My father was a hospital doctor when I was a toddler and worked mostly in Accident and Emergency. The peak time for accidents was about midnight, because the pubs closed at eleven o’clock back then. It was a time in Ireland when if you were involved as a driver in a road accident you could use in your defence the fact that you had been drinking. That would constitute extenuating circumstances. I think that may have changed now.
I was an only child with a father who was often away all night long, and I think that was why my mother used to let me sleep in her bed. She liked the company. I doubt if many mothers do that now. I’m sure all the child-rearing books tell you that it’s the wrong thing to do. I’m sure that almost everything people did back then would be considered the wrong thing now.
My mother liked to read in bed. Reading struck me as a very strange activity – sitting up in bed with the light on staring at a piece of white paper with little black marks on it. The marks didn’t even form a very regular or attractive pattern. I thought the wallpaper was a lot more interesting because that had full colour pictures on it of things I could identify. Flowers mainly, and stems and leaves. But after half an hour or so even those lost their ability to engage and entertain. How could the black marks on the white paper hold my mother’s attention for hours on end? Often I would fall asleep and wake up again much later and she would still be staring at those little black marks. I became anxious about her sanity.
Of course it was only one of a large number of totally bonkers things that a lot of adults did back then and still do today. Mumbling to an imaginary friend in the sky. Dropping bombs on far away cities about which they knew nothing. Cutting off bits off children’s genitals with unsterilised instruments. Arranging for two per cent of the human race to control eighty-five per cent of its wealth. Using up all of the earth’s resources at a rate that would exhaust those resources within the lifetime of people already born. Rationality isn’t our strong point as a species.
Nevertheless I felt that I should give my mother a chance to explain her eccentric behaviour. When questioned her first explanation was that books spoke to her. I put my ear up to the one she was holding and listened with great concentration but could hear only the faint rustling of the bedclothes. No, I had misunderstood, she said, they didn’t talk to her with sound. Her next explanation was that books were like windows into other lives and other words. And I must concede that in the years and decades that followed my experience confirmed that this was indeed the case.
But being of a practical frame of mind I wanted to know the mechanism by which the windows worked. And under intensive cross-questioning my mother revealed to me the fact that individual clumps of marks on the page represented specific words. That was really all I needed to know about the general principle. Following on from this revelation I was able to discover the regularities for myself and refer back to my mother merely for confirmation that I was getting things right. Is that an ‘and’ mum? Is that a ‘the’? Is that a ‘J’? Is that a person’s name? Is that the word ‘fish’? Is that ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’? Oh, all right, maybe not quite that. But by the time I was five and ready for school I had realised that it wasn’t really very difficult, you just needed to learn a few shapes, a few rules, a few exceptions to the rules and you could understand pretty well anything that was written down with a bit of guesswork from the context. What was all the fuss about? Of course I could read. What was the matter with all the other dummies in the class who couldn’t? Hadn’t their mothers taught them anything?
I was without doubt an arrogant little sod when I first went to the nun’s primary school in Drumallen, and enjoyed nothing more than disrupting the saintly Sister Imelda’s daily reading class. I knew all this stuff backwards. Why was she wasting my time?
But Sister Imelda was a wise woman. If a little boy wants to show off and is disrupting your class, provide him with an outlet for this impulse. Give him something to show off about. Something that will keep him quiet and maybe even help the other children’s motivation to learn.
We have now come to the point at which my literary career began. Sister Imelda provided me with blank sheets of paper, a coloured pencil which I still remember wrote in dark brown, a sharpener for when the top snapped off, and a topic on which to write a story.
“Write something about a little boy getting lost. Describe him and everything that happens to him. And if your story is good enough you can read it out to the whole class at the end of the lesson. Would you like that?”
Yes, I would like that. I liked it a lot. It’s what I’ve been doing, more or less, every spare moment that I could grab, for the whole of the rest of my life. The stories weren’t all about a little boy who got lost, except maybe in an extended sense, because they’ve all been about me, thinly disguised, and I’ve always been trying to find where in the world I really belong. Sister Imelda has heard or read most of them, but I doubt if she ever realised the significance of the part she played in their creation. I hoped she might be able to be with us today, but she is a little less mobile now, having recently celebrated her hundred-and-first birthday. I know that you’re listening somewhere, Sister Imelda, and I hope you have been satisfied with the stories I have written, because pleasing you was the original motive for writing all of them. You took me one step farther than my mother, because what she did not explain to me was that books are not only windows into other lives and other worlds, writing them is also the means by which an ordinary mortal can become a god and create those other lives and other worlds. What better activity for an arrogant and self-important individual like me than to become a self-appointed god?
And so it is that I dedicate this my Nobel Prize for Literature to you, Sister Imelda, and to my late mother. My debt to you both is incalculable and my gratitude without limit.