I’ve been thinking about her a lot recently. It seems just about every interview I do, I’m asked how I discovered Sherlock Holmes. My answer is always the same:
In an age of silence, when you could only make a call by going to the phone box down the street, when television didn’t broadcast until after 6pm each day (except for Saturday sports), and when the height of sophistication was the radio, my grandmother was a megaphone. She had a way of filling the silence like no one else I knew.
Nana lived in Dublin’s Temple Bar, then an echoing cavern of cobblestone streets and tenements, not the touristy hub of art houses and restaurants it is today. It was 1963 in the rest of the world, and 1923 in Ireland. Except in my grandmother’s flat. She knew the Beatles before my mother did, and she had an opinion on everything from Fianna Gael (rubbish) to the space race (wondrous). She liked JFK and Pope John XXIII, but despised Johnson and Paul VI.
But the most dazzling thing about Nana was this:
She knew stories.
When I spent the day with her I would beg, “Tell me a story.” If the mood was on her, she’d tell ghost stories, stories of Irish myth and legend, stories about the Black and Tans and Ireland’s struggle for freedom. She introduced me to Mr Darcy, The Scarlet Pimpernel and, yes, Sherlock Holmes.
Sometimes she told me about whatever book she was reading. If she thought it was unsuitable for a six-year-old, I got the edited version. I was shocked many years later to find that Mickey Spillane was very different from Nana’s version. Frankly, her “I, the Jury”, was better, complete with charm and much humour.
Sometimes, when I begged for a story she’d reply:
I’ll tell you a story about Jack a Nory,
And now my story’s begun.
I’ll tell you another about his brother,
And now my story’s done.
That meant she was too tired for a story that day. It felt like a small death.
She gave me books. I remember each one clearly, the way they looked, the way they felt, and even their smell. The complete Hans Christian Anderson had a green cover and the complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales was blue. The Thousand and One Nights had a picture of a flying carpet on the cover; the Child’s Book of Verse was some twee flowers. I gobbled them up.
She had to leave school at the age of 12 to help support the family. Her father was fighting for England during the First World War. Nana was sent from her quiet home in County Kildare to work as a maid in the home of a wealthy relative. She survived, in no small part, by reading. She knew the classics, the bible, and modern literature equally well. It was she who took me to the theatre for the first time. She told me about her travels abroad. She went to see “Hair” on stage and thought it was ‘gas’.
One day when I was about seven she asked what I was reading. I showed it to her. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. In comic book format. Nana was unimpressed. “You shouldn’t be reading stuff like that,” she said. “There’s more to a story than just the plot. These things,” she picked up my comic like it needed a good scrub, “are a waste. Why don’t you read proper books?”
“I like the pictures,” I said.
A few days later, she handed me a new book. A Penguin paperback with a green cover and small print. “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, I read.
“There are some pictures in it,” she said. She showed me the Sidney Paget illustrations.
I gave her a suspicious look. But I read it.
I read it in one sitting and then I read it again. For months I slept with it under my pillow and I would re-read my favourite scenes when I couldn’t sleep. Other Holmes books followed soon after. So did the Brontes and Jane Austen, Stephenson and Wilde.
One time, she had to leave me with my baby brother for a while. She was reading a book that she wouldn’t discuss with me. Ooh, intrigue! “I have to go out,” she said. “Don’t be reading that book, now.” She stuck it in her usual hiding place under the mattress. I watched at the window as she made her way down Essex Street. As soon as she turned the corner I grabbed the book. “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
By the time she came home about an hour later, I’d already finished it. “Well,” Nana said, “So you’ve read it.” And she told me about the Holocaust. Years later, I realised she had meant me to find the book. It was her way of introducing a difficult subject.
Because of her, I discovered books. I discovered how to tell a story. I discovered heroes.
And she was the biggest hero of all.