The Blanket

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I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me.
I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.
As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
- Malcolm X




Anthony McIntyre


Sitting in Manchester's Central Library with a few hours to spare before meeting a friend, I certainly could not grumble over lack of choice about what to read. It is always warming to have the type of companionship provided by books. On the flight that morning from Belfast I had read a chapter of Terry Eagleton's The Gatekeeper, a literary journey upon which I had embarked a few weeks earlier on a flight to London. In my bag securely tucked away in the baggage hold were books by John Lydon, Adam Roberts and the latest output from Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick.

While on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks I was visited almost nightly by a dream of being in a library surrounded by books. Each time I reached for one, opened it and turned a page, I found it was written in a language that I could not understand. The dream was made all the more 'real' for me given that the layers of memory that shaped it were nurtured as a child. Then, I had spent endless hours in Belfast libraries since my father had first introduced me to one. He read a lot and we lived in a house, which while small, nevertheless, carved out sufficient space with which to impress upon the casual caller that the home was to some extent bookish. He was inclined towards the classics or practical material. My mother liked Agatha Christie but was not averse in her life to Camus, Solzhenitsyn, or Dostoyevsky.

My father's library branch was in the Donegal Road but even as a child I knew it was too dangerous for me to go there. There were always those, from the nearby loyalist streets backing onto Sandy Row, all too ready to ask the religion of a strange child, beat them up if they found the answer disagreeable, and steal their books. Whether they ripped them up, sold them or discarded them yards from their victim - a disposable trophy captured from the enemy - I don't know. A combination of all three, perhaps, for the most part determined by opportunity or a need to get rid of the evidence. Burning them probably never occurred to the new owners until later in life. And it is difficult to imagine that they stumbled across that idea reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Perusing the contents of the stolen 'trophies' was most likely the only option ruled out. Overcoming prejudices or trying to understand what a 'taig' might read was hardly high on their agenda. That we could actually read at all was probably bad enough. Sometimes, sauntering down the railway line we could see ripped library books strewn alongside the railway wall, no doubt tossed over with indifferent vulgarity.

Given their attitude to books I later came to wonder if any of them eventually enlisted in the prison service. In my H-Block protest years, I was to learn that screws found a book a useful aid in their prison management procedures. And, for them, the bigger the better. Republicans returning from visits were on occasion battered down to the squat position over a mirror while the late Brian Amour or some fellow thug would call out 'heavy reading' for whoever the unfortunate was. The dull thud of some book on the unwashed head of a blanket-man echoed menacingly around the wing. This aspect of literary life in the republican environs of Long Kesh was unfortunately missed out on by those writers who commented on the breadth of reading material that the republican book shelves yielded up to the Linen Hall Library only a year or two ago. Perhaps now that Long Kesh is closed those unemployed book wielders still alive may apply for jobs with TSB Returns in Essex, a veritable book cemetery. By way of acknowledgement of the reading public's good taste it is rumoured that 30,000 copies of Jim Davidson's autobiography alone lie there waiting to be pulped. And in an almost ironic twist Stella Rimmington's memoirs are shelved there as well keeping an ever-watchful eye on proceedings to ensure that no fellow book escapes the grim pulper. Such an intellectually challenging job would be appropriate for one of her Majesty's prison thugs.

My library was on the Ormeau Road, just beside the River Lagan. Streams of misty pollution and written clarity flowing side by side. The books I would either read there or borrow and which now come to mind were about Pocomoto - a young cowboy or Just William - a young rascal. One in particular was called Old Yeller - a Western built around a dog. I then 'progressed' to books about skinheads and Hells Angels. The mafia soon followed, as did others from a different genre - vampires. That sense of standing in a library as a child, the forced but non-threatening quietude of the surroundings, the smell of the books and their papery texture - smooth pages contrasting with rough indented covers, helped create a palpable aura that would drift into my prison protest dreams. The deep frustration of experiencing the 'almost but never quite' - in that very place where I longed to be, yet unable to understand a word because of the foreign language - was compounded all the more in the mornings when the cell door would pound to the sound of a screw's baton. Our wake up call from society's illiterate.

Bonding on the protest was great and has remained as such to this day. We occupied each other while challenging ourselves through persistent engagement in vigorous debate and intellectual exploration, fed always by memory and no small measure of bending the facts, accompanied by the odd snippet of new material snatched on visits or gleaned from a letter, or prisoner fresh on protest. The latter would be 'interrogated' for the most infinitesimal scrap of information. But it was like being in a pub with no beer. The comradeship, conversation and banter can only take you so far without the juice to run it all on. The deep reservoirs of knowledge possessed by men like Harry McKavanagh and Pat 'Bamber' Nash were soon drained dry, no longer able to quench the parched intellects created by a deliberately contrived dearth of stimulation. Even Thumper Kearney's attempts to change the plot so that Germany won the Second World War could not sate our thirst for long. And from Cell 14 at the end of the wing Eamonn O'Donnell told us his 'book' - the great H4 classic, America, which was in fact about Vietnam. From behind his door he would pound our ears and regale our minds, spanning seven nights - and kept us talking for a further seven. And yet we needed more.

In a place barren of all readable intellectual sustenance - a deprivation which in itself formed the hungry substance which alone could conjure up those frustrated recurring dreams of books written in foreign tongues - I was not prompted to learn more languages but merely to read more books. Since then I have always loved libraries and regularly, time permitting, find my way to one in any city or town I happen to be in and savour a small therapeutic victory over the inhumanity of the blanket regime. Each time I see a Stephen King book, I drift back to The Stand, recommended by Martin Livingstone at the end of the blanket protest and which consumed my attention for days on end, even declining to leave the cell for 'association' in order to finish it.

Coming out of Manchester Central Library with my friend, I pondered how ironic it would be if I were ever to arrive at a library in desperate need of reading material only to be refused admission on the grounds that - in true Kafkaesque style - the place had been 'booked' out. Horrible haunting dreams from the blanket coming true. But when I see my year old daughter browsing through her book on babies or her mother voraciously devouring Alice Walker, Sister Fidelma and a wide range of murder mysteries, I feel those who wage wars on knowledge can never win. Once read, a book that finds its way to the pulp mill is only a consolation prize for the loser waiting at the graveyard gate revelling in imbecilic anticipation of its obliteration.



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