Shelf Life: Carol Shields - The Stone Diaries

‘Not people die, but worlds die in them’

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I’m not sure what made me pick up a copy of The Stone Diaries in a second hand bookshop last year – although I remember reading great reviews, and being aware of its stature as a work, I think for many years I had unfairly considered it to be a ‘woman’s novel’. Maybe it's a cover design thing – those pastel colours and the little bouquet of daisies on the front.

I think I also picked it up out of some curiosity – the Shields family were well-loved neighbours of my wife Andrea and her family back in Ottawa in the late 70s and through the 80s, and I must have perhaps thought the book would give me some insight into that world.

But in fact the book delivered an enormous amount more. Essentially it’s a family saga of four generations, told through the life of the central character Daisy Goodwill. It’s a complicated story which I won’t elaborate on too much – her mother dies in childbirth and she is raised by a neighbour, and eventually marries the neighbour’s son. And the book's father figures – her own, her adopted father, her husband – die young, or walk away from their marriages, into thin air. Children accumulate and the story fans out into their lives and then returns to Daisy as she grows old, the central pillar of the story. A story of one woman’s life, told in a fairly straight line – first chapter is called Birth, the last is called Death.

And it’s astonishing – this seemingly ordinary life, this woman who considers herself to be nothing special. Shields gets right under the skin of these everyday lives and reveals the teeming multitude of every human life. The details, the emotions, the unspoken words, the night thoughts, the little mysteries that pass between family members. I found myself completely caught up – Shields (who died in 2003) has a stunning and uncanny way of maintaining a double focus: as Daisy declines in her last days in hospital, Shields manages with great skill to keep the reader inside the minds of both the central character and those who visit her, unfolding the awkward conversations that float around hospital rooms.

All of this struck me hard when I thought of my own mother’s decline, and the long empty days she spent in hospital wards, sleeping and waking and passing the time. As I read of Daisy’s reveries and thoughts, I wondered what thoughts my mother must have gone through, the childhood memories and regrets and joys, as she floated in and out of sleep in the boredom between visiting hours.

‘Her body’s planet with its atoms and molecules and lumps of matter is blooming all of a sudden with headlines, nightmares, greeting cards, medicinal bitterness, the odours of her own breath and blood, someone near her door humming a tune she comes close to recognising’.

But the larger message of the book is ultimately the same one that I cling to time and time again – as Dylan puts it: ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. The idea of feeling and experiencing and living every moment to its fullest, as the clock ticks:

‘The larger loneliness of our lives evolves from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves. We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comfort of postponement, or rehearsals’.

Shelf life: Patti Smith - M Train

Finished the Patti Smith M Train this morning and have felt strange and disconnected since. It’s a book with no story, no real characters apart from Patti herself, and she’s haunted, sleepless, still grief-struck throughout, looking for signs and meanings in everything.

Patti Smith M Train

The book is beautifully written, and often seems little more than a series of dream journal entries at times, or diaries of pilgrimages to the graves and houses of other artists – Rimbaud, Plath, Kahlo, Genet - where she leaves little tokens of respect. On several occasions in the book, she walks away from a scene and leaves something behind by mistake – her Polaroid camera, the book she was reading, her notebook.

And the narrative disappears, often for days, in tangents and diversions. She goes looking for a passage in a book and it leads her back to childhood - and then back to her early days of marriage, and back to present day. And all around her, things change – her children are grown and gone, Fred is dead. Her favourite café disappears seemingly overnight like it might have been a dream all along.

At the centre of it all she finds a scruffy old bungalow in Rockaway and prepares to turn it into a shelter from the city, a sun-drenched, sand-blown writing retreat. And in comes Hurricane Sandy and pushes all of that invested hope sideways, almost obliterates it. The bungalow becomes a central theme in the book for me – a reminder that all of our plans are at the mercy of the elements, at the whim of forces bigger than all of us.

I finished the book like someone awaking from a fever, from a dream full of portents and symbols, feeling confused, strangely satisfied and not satisfied at the same time. And in a way, maybe that’s its success as a piece of art. Maybe that’s what she wanted all along – to transfer her own restlessness and flu-like confusion to the reader.

‘We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.’

The deepening coastal shelf of... parenthood

The ghost of Philip Larkin followed me home from Sainsbury's the other day.

Over by the cheese counter in the grey empty middle of a Sunday afternoon, I passed a woman struggling with her two boys. The oldest one had plonked himself down in the pram in place of his tired younger brother – and she was trying to encourage him to his feet, while coaxing the younger one back into the pram.

Eventually the older one got up, but by now the younger one wouldn't sit down. The possibility arose that the pair of them might suddenly run off and roam the aisles in a circuitous, destructive escape bid - while she pushed an empty pram for hours down the canyons between the shelves, calling their names in vain.

-  Will you sit down? She asked – and he complained and refused.

- Please sit down, she implored him.

And still he refused. I saw her shoulders slump.

- If I give you money, will you sit down?

And she began to rummage in her purse for change.

I got through the checkout and headed for the exit. Ahead of me, an enormous woman was pushing a trolley, packed mountainously high with groceries. This was a large woman in her early 30s – with a stern, long-suffering look, about six feet tall, rolls of fat and muscle across her shoulders and torso. Ahead of her, her husband pushed a similar trolley, also packed to the bows with teetering, loose bags of shopping.

He was also large – a big, shapeless guy with swinging limbs and a kind of beaten, defeated look. In front of him, in the little folding seat of the trolley, his little boy was leaning over backwards, attempting to grab tasty items out of the shopping bags. His father, muttering under his breath, was snatching the bags and jars from his grasp, and putting them back into the bags with one hand, and trying to keep the trolley moving with the other.

Between him and his wife, their little girl sat down heavily on one of the chairs near the café.

- Move, you, said the mother to the daughter.

The little girl, tired and with a slightly mischievous look, stayed where she was and thought about disobedience.

- MOVE!! Roared her mother suddenly, the Sunday afternoon shoppers glancing over as they loaded their own trolleys.


And up she got, maybe six years old, and headed for the exit between the trolleys, and back to the family home, to fill the cupboards and the freezer and the fridge, until the same time next week.

Poor Blue - Mickey stands up in public again

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

 It was so long ago, I could probably fake it, and claim I was right there, at the front corner of the bar near the stage (my feet sticking to the carpet), when the spark of punk set the cobwebs on fire at Spuds in Portstewart.

But the fact is... the Punk thing kind of passed me by, as a live phenomenon anyway. Sure, Rudi and The Outcasts might have played Spuds, but by the time I was just underage enough to blag my way in out of the rain, the circus had already left town.

I was 17, stretched out on the teenage rack of boredom, acne, exams and an enormous melancholy. I took refuge in post-Punk Spuds – The Perfect Crime. International Rescue. The tasty musicianship of bands like Southbound Train, B4, Richmond Hill.

And then I heard The Mighty Shamrocks. And for that year, I caught every gig they played at Spuds. It was the only live music venue I knew. I had virtually no pocket money. But I saved what I could, and once or twice WALKED from Harpur's Hill to Portstewart - and hitched home again in the dark - to hear this band.


The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

It's hard to define in retrospect. I remember shapes they threw - chins jutting, leather jackets, tinted glasses. Skinny ties. A Roland Jazz Chorus amp. A worn-out Telecaster. 

The guitar player sounded like The Pretenders. The rhythm section sounded like Some Girls-era Stones. The singer sounded like Bob Geldof fighting for the mic with Willie De Ville. 

I remember 'Breaking up with Harry' most of all. Like 'Reelin in the Years' being sneered by Blonde on Blonde Dylan. The charts were full of image-conscious New Romantics, preening and pouting. And here, in this seaside pub lounge, was this scruffy quartet singing oblique songs about Mexican fishermen and referencing Coronation Street and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I was hooked these were actual SONGS. Pop had become so rarefied and refined almost out of its own existence by then – we were in a high-altitude world, all mirrors and image and attitude, and the oxygen was pretty scarce. The song structures had thinned out, too - become little more than skeletons. Coat hangers. Skittery little drum patterns and nervy, processed vocals and guitars. 

The Shamrocks seemed three dimensional in comparison. I bought the single - 'Condor Woman & 'Stand Up in Public', and waited for the LP. The band went into Homestead Studios with Mudd Wallace and recorded and album for Good Vibrations. But-

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

The taxman came after the label, the project got shelved and the band went their separate ways - bassist Roe Butcher and guitarist Dougie Gough to other musical projects; frontman Mickey Stephens to academia in the United States and Paddy McNichol (until his untimely death) as manager of the fabled venue Connolly's of Leap down in Cork).

Thanks to fellow Shamrocks fan Fran McCloskey, who had a digital copy, the album, now called 'Paddy', was finally released a couple of years ago. There were a couple of celebration gigs, with Paddy's son on the drums, sparks that could have started fires, and the players separated again.

Now here comes Mickey Stephens again, sounding like he's never been gone, with a new project, Poor Blue, and an album You're Welcome. It's not the Shamrocks - and of course, it shouldn't be - what would be the point? But every now and then when he opens his throat and I hear that yelp, I'm transported. 

The swagger remains - he was always a writer blessed with a beautiful reading list and enormous confidence, and on character studies like 'Worth Your Time', he really goes for broke. Top of my list is 'Good for You Daddy', a wonderful lowlife portrait that relies on acoustic guitar and Mickey's delivery.

And the rest of it is laced with brawny Telecaster bite, big drums, Stonesy riffs and memorable turns of phrase. Check out their Facebook page to catch videos and recordings from the band. Copies of the album are available from Head Records and Sick Records in Belfast - and I'm told that copies of 'Paddy' will be available there soon, too, all these years later, You can also download the album from Amazon and you can buy copies by clicking on the CDBaby link here:


 Rewind - back to shortly after where we came in. It's early 1985. I'm a teenage dad, out of work and living on an edge-of-town housing estate, miles from the housing estate I grew up in. I've become distanced from my family and friends. Word from home tells me that Spuds is closing. The Shamrocks are gone, the punks have gone. All the people I went to school with seem to have gone. The bands I wanted to form have all fallen to ruins. On some February nights, when the bedtime stories are finished and my little girl has gone to sleep, I find myself slipping into the spare room, picking up the acoustic guitar and quietly starting to work on some song ideas. For the first six months, every one of them sounds like 'Breaking up with Harry'.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late.

Rock Goes to College, 1983 - The Mighty Shamrocks perform Breaking Up With Harry and Condor Woman.

Goat's Milk - a cause for celebration

Goat's Milk by Frank Ormsby

When I was 12 or 13 (and still kind of friendless) at Coleraine Inst, I would spend most lunchtimes indoors, wandering the shelves of the big library at the school. Like everything else in my first couple of years at that school, the room seemed enormous and complicated to me, with a balcony, and imposing portraits of former headmasters glowering down on damp teenagers hiding from the rain, reading the Daily Mirror.

  I didn’t want conversation – I hadn’t found my tongue yet (that would come later). So I had little to say about football or The Clash, and would avoid everyone by hiding out in the baked-dust gloom under the balcony, near the radiator, in the one section nobody else wanted to browse – poetry.

  I’d read RL Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verse as a youngster, and craved those rhythms, I suppose. Something soothing and comprehensible and bite-sized. Something I could understand and make my own, in a world that seemed about to overwhelm me with its strange rules and unknowable historical significance. And something you could slip into conversation. A name you could drop that would separate you out from the rest of your world. So I would randomly grab slim volumes of poetry from the school library and take them home, and scratch my head in bafflement at the work of poets like WS Merwin and John Berryman.

A Northern Spring by Frank Ormsby

  By the time I left school and found myself in the big bad world beyond, poetry was something I felt I had to leave behind – a luxury that would have to wait, somehow. But in the late 80s, in some second hand bookshop somewhere, I chanced upon a gorgeous thing: a used copy of A Northern Spring by Frank Ormsby. It had a delicious print of a warplane flying over a rural landscape on the front in blue, and simple lettering. It looked inviting and serious and calm all at the same time, somehow.

  The central title ‘suite’ is a series of poems spoken by the dead GIs who landed in Normandy on D-Day, in remembrance of their time spent in Fermanagh, preparing for the invasion. I was completely hooked on the idea that each poem came from a different soul, told a different story, but that all of the stories added up to a larger, enormously sad narrative. It was one of those books you read that you never quite recover from.

  When I first started writing songs a few years later, I was conscious that I could inhabit other souls, like Ormsby had done. I loved the idea of putting my arms into the sleeves of someone else’s coat and telling their story. It became – and remains - a big influence on me, and I recommend it constantly to other songwriters, as a personal touchstone.

  Over the years, I have returned time and time again to A Northern Spring, and I’ve read Ormsby in a number of anthologies – his recent collection, Fireflies, is also a classic.

Anthony Toner meets Frank Ormsby - at No Alibis

Anthony Toner meets Frank Ormsby - at No Alibis

  On Friday past, as I arrived at No Alibis, I noticed a new Ormsby collection on display – Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe. I immediately told David Torrans I was having a copy of that, and purchased it. And as we were setting up for the concert, I recited a couple of poems and announced that I wanted to read a couple of them during the show, and plug the upcoming launch – at The McMordie Hall in Queens on March 25.

  After the soundcheck I went off for a bite to eat, and when I came back, David said: ‘Guess who’s coming to the gig tonight?’ He had called Frank and invited him to the show. And so it was that Frank Ormsby got to be my special guest at No Alibis on Friday evening, reading a couple of poems from the new collection. What a gentleman. What a writer. What an evening – a real high point of my performing life.

  Now... If you like what I do, you’ll love what Frank Ormsby does – there’s a direct influence. I urge you to call at No Alibis (on Botanic Avenue in Belfast) and pick up a copy of Goat’s Milk (which has an introduction by Michael Longley, and which contains many of the delightful poems from A Northern Spring - and some glorious new works, too), or even better, come along to the McMordie Hall in the School of Music at Queen’s on Wednesday March 25 at 6.30pm, when No Alibis will host the launch event. I’ll be there, in continuing celebration of this man’s work, which continues to move and delight me.

  For more details on the Goat’s Milk launch event, get in touch with No Alibis directly on (028) 9031 9601.

Street suss serenade

Cornmarket Busker

Cornmarket, pushing my bike through the post-festive throngs today, everybody in the doldrums, the in-between days of Christmas and the New Year. Suddenly I’m distracted by the sound of somebody singing. That’s not unusual - there are always buskers around that part of the city. In fact, it seems to have become a welcome space for public spectacle – clowns and street entertainers, buskers with Mumford-y beards, little kids with squalling electric guitars, the amazing drummer who plays the empty paint pots, musicians miming to panpipe music, etc.

But this guy was different – he had drawn a crowd. He had set up some kind of MP3 player and an amplifier outside the front doors of British Home Stores, belting out karaoke backing tracks. And he stood out in front of it in a camel coat, with a straw hat on the pavement in front of him, and just... wailed.

I watched him for about ten minutes. Old showtunes, Elvis numbers, 60s hits, he bellowed them all out, throwing his head back, waving his arms and moving around the space he had created. Every now and then a pretty girl would go past and he would gesticulate, offering the performance to her alone. The crowd around him would grow and then retreat, in that unfathomable logic of crowds, where everybody suddenly, wordlessly agrees they’ve stood for too long and they instantly disperse.

But periodically his audience would swell to thirty or forty people, and they would stand in a circle, smiling, just amazed at the energy he gave it. No instrument, no costume. Just his voice. When he didn’t know the words, he approximated them with home-made sounds of his own.

In other words, he was not to be stopped.

I bent over to throw a quid in the hat, and noticed that it was already two thirds full of £1 and 50p coins. Which tells us something, I think – fortune favours the brave. Who dares wins. Something along those lines. I’ve heard a lot of buskers this year – and I’ve made donations to most of them – but this one I’ll remember, because something about his bravado made me smile.

Sliding on Latter Day Sinner

The first time I saw Matt McGinn – who has a lovely new album out that you should buy – was at one of those shows people used to do in the Black Box where a cast of thousands play all the songs from a big album – they had already done Harvest, I think, and Astral Weeks and Fisherman’s Blues, and now it was the turn of The Last Waltz.

Matt McGinn by Joanne Ham Photography

Matt McGinn by Joanne Ham Photography

The afternoon (it was a long affair, this) was hosted by the irreplaceable and much-missed Gerry Anderson, who arrived in a fluster having locked the keys inside his Mercedes. Someone from a garage on the Boucher Road had broken into his car and got his keys and charged him £160. ‘I could have left my car in half a dozen places in Belfast,’ he told me, ‘and got that done for nothing.’

  Gerry started everything off with a rousing welcome and launched into a spirited version of ‘Who Do You Love?’. I was on early, playing a solo version of ‘Such a Night’ by Dr. John on acoustic guitar. I seem to remember feeling very out place, very subdued among the rackets being generated by people like Jackson Cage and Captain Kennedy and co. But the craic was great.

  Anyway, half way through the first set, on came Matt McGinn and tore the place up with a raw version of ‘The Shape I’m In’. I’d heard his name (it’s a great name, blessed with its own rhythm and bounce on the tongue), but it was the first time I’d heard him perform and I thought he was wonderful. Andrea thought he looked like a happy dancing bear.

  Over the years, I’ve come to know Matt well, and we’ve done a few gigs and broadcasts together here and there. On his debut album, Livin’, he asked me to play some slide guitar and I showed up at his house badly hungover and attempted to put some licks down over a pretty complicated arrangement. I went home convinced I had let the side down, but when the track came out, he had cut and spliced something wonderful out of it. I tell you, it bore little resemblance to what I offered him that afternoon.

Latter Day Sinner by Matt McGinn

Latter Day Sinner by Matt McGinn

  It was good enough though, that he asked me back, and I’m thrilled to have been part of his latest album, the delicious Latter Day Sinner. Once again I’m playing slide guitar, on a song called ‘We’re Fine’, with my playing weaving in and out between harmonica licks from the legendary Mickey Raphael. I think it’s the sweetest song on the collection, but then I would say that. There are some harmonies on ‘Fall into You’ that just make me swoon. And I’m not much of a swooner anymore.

  It’s a lovely collection, recorded with warmth and heart and it deserves to be heard by as many of you as possible. Click HERE to order a copy. And click HERE if you’d like to watch a video featuring some selections from the album. And if you’re a downloader and you only want one track, ‘We’re Fine’ is, er... (cough) the one I’d go for...

  And if you'd like to see the man perform in person, and pick up a copy of the album from Matt himself, he's appearing at McGrory's in Culdaff on November 13, at the Downshire Arms in Hilltown on November 15, St. George's Church in High Street Belfast on November 19 and Abner Brown's in Dublin on November 26.

  I can't guarantee that he will dance like a happy bear at any of those gigs, but maybe if you ask him he might oblige.

For National Poetry Day

'For Tess'

by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Out on the Strait the water is whitecapping
As they say here. It’s rough and I’m glad
I’m not out. Glad I fished all day
on Morse Creek, casting a red Daredevil back
and forth. I didn’t catch anything. No bites 
even, not one. But it was okay. It was fine!
I carried your dad’s pocketknife and was followed
for awhile by a dog its owner called Dixie.
At times I felt so happy I had to quit
fishing. Once I lay on the bank with my eyes closed,
listening to the sound the water made,
and to the wind in the tops of the trees. The same wind
that blows out on the Strait, but a different wind, too.
For awhile I even let myself imagine that I had died -
and that was all right, at least for a couple 
of minutes, until it really sank in: Dead.
As I was laying there with my eyes closed,
just after I’d imagined what it might be like
if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you.
I opened my eyes then and got right up
and went back to being happy again
I’m grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.

Cheeky face

A journal post from last year: In the coffee shop this morning, a young mother and her friend are complaining to each other about relatives, while her son runs around the café, as kids will do, picking things up and putting them down, his little trainers pounding on the fake wood floor.

  I’ve just come from the doctor, whose confirms my suspicion – this cold has gifted me a perforated eardrum, so I’m sensitive to every noise: her barked orders at the child, the steam from the cappuccino maker, even (God bless him) the youngster’s thin, wet little cough, which sounds in my bad ear like a cheap roller skate being thrown down the stairs.

  ‘Show Tracey your cheeky face,’ she says to her boy, who stands by their table and pulls a face. The women laugh. ‘Show her your cross face… Show her your happy face.’

  The little boy grimaces at them repeatedly. They’re all the same face.

To Kill A Mockingbird - revisited

(On Sunday May 11, Andrea and I went with my daughter Sian and her boyfriend Bob to the Queen's Film Theatre to see 'To Kill A Mockingbird' on the big screen)

Oceans of ink have already been spilled on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird, so there’s really no reason for me to pour my thimbleful over the side of this boat.

  But I can’t help myself. What is it about this film that peels me open every time?

Atticus Finch and the children are confronted by the lynch mob

Atticus Finch and the children are confronted by the lynch mob

  Certainly the central performance by Gregory Peck is a towering example of dignity, courage, integrity and strong, loving parenting. I have to say that Atticus Finch is the yardstick I set myself some time ago as a father.

(I know. It’s an impossible standard to measure up to, but you have to aim for something. There are a number of things that will bring me out in a cold sweat in the small hours of the night. And the thought that I might have been a bad parent is one of them. So I look to Atticus as one of the role models)

  The sense of lost childhood is also stronger every time I see the movie – the narration, the idea that this whole thing is already a memory. That’s highlighted, I think, by the soundtrack, which hints at nursery rhyme structures now and then.

To Kill A Mockingbird set.jpg

  Also the look of the film – the overhanging trees, the creaking verandahs, the fallen leaves, the warm darkness... It’s a childhood world seen in memory. It has an unreal quality, like the whole street – the trees and yards and houses – was created in a vast film studio lot - indoors - and lit to look like reality, but feels instead like something you dreamed.

  It’s an archetypal southern landscape too, all those heatstruck ladies and the kindly black maids, front porches and screen doors, chirping crickets and tree houses. People sitting outdoors at night on a porch swing, fanning themselves in courthouses, the rattling cars, the pocket watches and waistcoats.

  It has been many years since I saw the film, and Sunday past was my first time to see it on a big screen. It has lost none of its power to move me. Almost from the minute they put Tom Robinson on the stand through to the last line... ‘he would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning’ - I’m in tatters.

  What do I weep for? The first novels that really made an impression on my teenage mind were Southern Gothic classics - Harper Lee's Mockingbird, Truman Capote's A Grass Harp, Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and as a result, it's a world that makes me nostalgic when I go back there to visit, like a sentimental tourist in my own childhood.

  What do so many of us weep for, anyway? Our own lost childhoods, I suppose. In my case, lost opportunities to be a better father, too, I’d guess. As always, the sense that time is slipping through our fingers and important things are being missed.

Haunts of ancient peace

Crawfordsburn Country Park, Bank Holiday Monday - picture by Andrea Montgomery

Crawfordsburn Country Park, Bank Holiday Monday - picture by Andrea Montgomery

I have always enjoyed forest trails and walks. Some of my fondest childhood scenes are set in the woods.

On blazing summer days at St. Malachy’s Primary School in Coleraine, our headmaster Frank Molloy used to occasionally arrive unannounced in our classrooms and take a couple of dozen of us on a stroll around Mountsandel Forest. He would tell us the names of the trees, talk about the birds and wildlife that lived in the forest, and excite us with fanciful tales of highwaymen riding along the trails to escape capture. For a kid who had caught the bus in from the housing estate that morning, it was an unexpected trip to a leafy world filled with wild noises - with a beautiful high green canopy and a warm, soft floor.

My father and I, Roe Valley Forest Park in the mid-70s. The little pot belly, the steel-framed specs and the binoculars: Just a MAGNET for bullies.

My father and I, Roe Valley Forest Park in the mid-70s. The little pot belly, the steel-framed specs and the binoculars: Just a MAGNET for bullies.

My dad already knew the names of the trees – he had worked for a sawmill as a young man and knew his ash from his chestnut. When I was in my early teens, we got our first car – an Austin 1200, I seem to remember, in a nostalgic royal blue - and as a family we would often head out for Sunday drives to places like the Roe Valley Forest Park, where I would stare through binoculars, looking for anything other than sparrows and jackdaws.

Today Andrea and I went out for a walk around Crawfordsburn Country Park – and had a beautiful stroll along the stream there, with the banks just misted purple by bluebells. It’s a beautiful space – it was lovely to be in under that bright green roof, and then find ourselves skimming stones on the beach ten minutes later.

Both of us felt the oncoming rush of the spring – things starting to come up out of the ground and make themselves seen, the sky seeming to lift a little higher.

I’ve just had a month or two that have felt like a low-level hibernation of the spirit, so it’s good to feel the ground warming up again, the sense of promise renewed. Bring it on.

To begin at the beginning... A suggestion for the Perfect Library

The lovely people at Libraries NI have been running a campaign asking people to nominate their choice for a book to make up The Perfect Library, and they asked me a couple of weeks ago if I would make a selection.

  How do you narrow something like that down to one book? And how do you take into account the vagaries of mood – Monday’s choice would be Harper Lee, Tuesday’s might be Charles Bukowski... And the thing is, you KNOW someone else will have suggested Harper Lee already - she'll be in there within the first half a dozen selections, along with Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and all the other regular residents of the Top Ten lists.

  Anyway, from the frame of mind I was in when I made the choice, here’s my entry for their campaign:

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Me and Under Milk Wood

  'Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams...'

  I could have selected dozens of titles for this - ask me tomorrow and I'll probably have a different one in mind. However, right here, right now, my choice is Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. I first read it when I was at Coleraine Inst and it had a profound effect on me. At that time I didn't know you could DO that with words. It was ravishing and heartbreaking and dreamlike. If words were edible, this book would be a never-ending box of expensive chocolates. Of course, off I went and wrote all kinds of imitations of it - that's what dreamy 14-year-olds are supposed to do. It did show me what language was capable of - and there's a direct link from the joy of reading this to the joy of putting words together in the songwriting process. I still read Under Milk Wood every three or four years, and I often listen to the delicious BBC recording with Richard Burton as the narrator. I offer it as a choice for the Perfect Library in the hope that some other head-in-the-clouds 14-year-old will find it and be smitten.

 ( I think the Perfect Library entries are now closed, but if you'd like to suggest an entry, click HERE to be taken to the submission page. )