Saturday 10 December 2016

Review: The Lamp And The Lullaby: Tales From A Rural Childhood by Bill Long

New Island, €16.99

Published 06/02/2011 | 05:00

IF ONE is lucky, childhood is like a cocoon, small and protective at first but gradually expanding as the child realises that vast galaxies of other lives exist behind the end of his or her street.

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Whether living in a vast city or in a remote glen, there is the same journey of discovery -- albeit perhaps occurring at different ages.

That sense of being cocooned within a tiny universe was keenly felt in the Irish countryside on the eve of World War Two, with transport difficult and petrol about to be rationed. This is the childhood vividly described in this short book by the acclaimed radio documentary maker and writer Bill Long (whose voice will be familiar to many, from 200 broadcasts on Sunday Miscellany), who died last March after years of serious ill-health.

Long was the author of several previous works. Bright Light, White Water was both a factual history of Irish lighthouses and a lyrical meditation on their keepers. A Change of Heart was again deeply factual and meditative as Long chronicled the dangerous wait to undergo a heart transplant, in a diary he could never be sure he would live to finish.

Finally, Brief Encounters was a wonderful account of unlikely meetings with remarkable people such as Raymond Chandler (Long was a penniless student in London when he met the American crime writer. At the time, Chandler was an old man living in the mansion next door. He befriended Long after hearing his Waterford accent, Chandler having spent his childhood summers in Waterford city).

These books gave us glimpses of Long's life, but his ambition, despite chronic ill-health and confinement to a wheelchair, was to write a three-volume autobiography. He showed great courage in managing (amid "the dying of the light" as his beloved Dylan Thomas phrased it) to complete this first volume in the months before his death.

He is here in every page as both an old man and a young boy, because Long's writing is heightened by his acceptance that time is running out.

The Lamp and the Lullaby is Long's journey to meet his younger self, a book deliberately not constructed in linear fashion, but from a montage of the formative memories, which GK Chesterton called "tremendous trifles".

Long was born in a thatched longhouse in a Waterford glen between two lighthouses -- Hook Head and Mine Head. Its title comes from the winking lights and noise of the fog horn visible and audible in the cottage. As he writes, "From my country cradle, lighthouse beam and boom were my lamp and my lullaby."

The one unwise note is his decision to take a swipe at Frank McCourt on the opening page, as Long misreads the irony in Angela's Ashes' famous opening line; McCourt's masterful memoir cannot be held responsible for other poorly written "misery memoirs" that its success unleashed.

Long sets out to write the polar opposite of a misery memoir. There is love in every page of this lyrical account of growing up in that remote glen in the years immediately before the war. It is a vivid account of a child's imagination being nurtured by remarkable neighbours, teachers and relations. His grandfather dominates the book, a man crippled in one leg by the Black and Tans but ingenious enough to master mounting, dismounting and riding a bicycle with one good leg.

The house is a meeting place for fascinating characters, like a penniless emigrant returned from America who died with nothing except a first edition of every Zane Grey novel, which Grey -- whom he met when he was a ranch-hand -- always sent him.

The book is infused with such characters, taking him under their wing as a boy, filling his imagination with such a vivid love of words that his final act was to pay tribute to them in the vivid pen-pictures of a vanished community in this deliberately idiosyncratic memoir -- a deeply moving final book from a quiet writer who will be missed.

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