Thursday 13 December 2018

A Wise Choice - by Sheena Wilkinson

‘You always had a book in your hand.’

‘You were always writing away.’

No doubt this what relatives will say to me this Christmas, reminiscing about ye olden dayes when we were all younge and merrye. And I will smile and quip that nothing has changed. 

When I was younge and merrye
Last month I gave a talk about Star By Star in the Tower Museum in Derry. I’d spent the afternoon walking round the city walls and remembering my very first time in Derry, a family weekend in summer 1979, when I was ten, staying with Chris and Irene, friends of my stepfather. That weekend in their tiny terraced house in the Bogside has always shone brightly in my mind. 

I remember going outside to the toilet in the back yard; I remember running down the steep street and walking round the walls, seeing the city beneath me and the river and hills stretching far beyond to Donegal across the border. I could hardly believe it when next day we crossed the border and went to Buncrana to the seaside, the most exotic thing that had ever happened to me.  In Donegal the postboxes were green and there was different money and different sweets. There were Troubles in Derry, as there were in Belfast, but I don’t remember being aware of them. 

When I saw Chris and Irene in the audience, almost forty years later, I was touched, and started to reminisce about what had always been a special weekend for me. And then, out of her bag, Irene took a neatly pinned -- yes, pinned, I mustn't have had a stapler -- wodge of pages. ‘Do you remember writing this for us?’ she asked.

This was a collection of stories, written that very weekend, carefully kept by them for nearly forty years.  I have no memory of writing them, but there they are as proof that in between walking the walls and playing on the beach in Buncrana I must have sat down and written. Their house was tiny; I must have written while the four adults chatted and their small daughter toddled and my sister played. 

Looking at the stories now I am struck by how professional I tried to make them look. At school I was doing cursive script, but the stories are printed to make them look more like real books. They are illustrated, as all my stories were – and reader, I take no offence if you are thinking it’s well I had no ambitions to be an artist. Two things stand out for me.

One is that nobody, reading these stories, would guess they were by a girl from a Belfast council estate in the middle of the Troubles. They are aspirational and escapist, rural and middle-class. They are the stories of a girl who has grown up with Enid Blyton and the Pullein-Thompsons. Jan, the heroine of The Lost Pony lives in Cherry Cottage with lots of animals. She copes very competently when she finds the eponymous lost pony, but is not sad to relinquish him to his owners because she has two ponies of her own already. The only note of the 1970s is when she buys Jackie at the village shop; real me would not give up Bunty for at least two years. (The Lost Pony is in fact entirely devoid of conflict or suspense; a weekend potboiler rather than part of my serious oeuvre.)

But talking of my serious oeuvre, the other thing that strikes me is my supreme confidence. Look at that Author’s Note: You have made a wise choice. I wish I had ten-year-old me doing my PR these days. I do remember, as soon as I got home, starting to write a family story set in Derry. No ponies, no kittens, no country cottages. It was my first foray into gritty urban realism. It has not survived. Maybe just as well. 


Pippa Goodhart said...


Helen Larder said...

Thanks for this really interesting post, Sheena xxxx

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

How terrific that this survived 40 years and how wonderful was that Author's note... such confidence and pazzazz (or should that be pazazz??) And how alert our 10 year old brains are, that the green postboxes made such an impression. Once a writer always a writer. Thank you for this fantastic memory you've shared today.