By Jack Holland
The first writer I ever met was the novelist and short story writer Michael McLaverty, the headmaster of St. Thomas’s Secondary School, on the Whiterock Road, though his prominence was not at all known to me when I first became a pupil there at the age of 11.
I had been put into the "D" stream — just below the level at which children were prepared for the examinations that could eventually (many years down the line) get them into university — but of course in 1958 few if any working-class kids at a secondary school ever imagined such a prospect being realized. (Probably, the vast majority did not know what a university was.)
An alert teacher of English spotted something which I had written and had taken the trouble to bring it to McLaverty’s attention. The headmaster summoned me to his office and told me that he liked it very much. He was especially taken with a simile I had used comparing someone’s speed to that of a meteor. (I think he even read it in front of the class, to my intense embarrassment.) McLaverty did not know that my hobby was astronomy, so such images came easily to me. Anyway, the result was that he ordered me moved into the next stream up — the "Cs". Thus it was, thanks to a thoughtful teacher, that I was launched on a career as a professional writer — though I had not the faintest idea at the time that it would turn out this way. My ambitions were still directed skyward. wanted to be an astronomer. In 1958, it was just a little more preposterous a goal than that of becoming a writer.
At the time, except for McLaverty, the only writer I had any even vaguely personal connection with was the oldest sister of one of my best friends. My friend used to boast that she had written a short story that had been read on the radio. We were all deeply impressed at her achievement.
At about 15, I met a friend of a friend who not only played musical instruments but staged concerts at the local parish hall and had published an article in the Irish News, Belfast’s "Catholic" daily. My aunt Martha, for one, regarded him as something of a renaissance man. However, by that time I was part of a group of disgruntled working-class teenagers with an intellectual bent, and we all had started scribbling about the various miseries we felt had been inflicted upon us by the church, Belfast, and society in general. The renaissance man’s musical ditties and parish hall events did not have much appeal. We were in far too gloomy a mood for that kind of thing. Our outpourings were pessimistic, if not downright misanthropic. In poetry, we strove to be difficult.
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My next brush with a writer occurred around this time, when a trainee teacher showed up from Queen’s University to take our English class. His name was Seamus Heaney. At that point, around 1962, I don’t believe that he had yet published anything. The first hint that he was a poet came one day when he distributed to the class some verse, badly run off in blue ink on St. Thomas’s printing machine. It was a poem about turkeys hanging up in the window of a butcher’s shop. (I believe I knew the actual shop — now long gone — on Cromac Street.)
We were not impressed. The problem was not so much the poem itself as the fact that the poet came from Bellaghy, in the wilds of South Derry, and therefore could not possibly be taken seriously by a bunch of street kids from the Falls Road.
In late 1963, I left St. Thomas’s and the following autumn entered St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road in North Belfast to study ancient history, English literature and — for a brief time — geology. My little circle of friends continued to wax misanthropic in verse. It was as if Hamlet had read T.S. Eliott, a wan concoction of obscurity and misery. The older brother of one of my friends, who was in his second year at Queen’s University, was part of a more elite group of poets. They even had their own magazine. None of us, alas, ever made it into its august pages.
Where would a poet be without his muse? I had two, one serious and one not so serious. The not-so-serious muse introduced me to a small circle of writers who met every Thursday evening in the parlor of a house on Cavendish Street, just off of the Falls Road.
The lady of this little literary salon was a housewife with a grown family. Among its other members were the wife of the local pharmacist, the wife of a greengrocer who had a shop on the Springfield Road opposite the police station, and an RUC sergeant from that station. The linchpin of the group was an elderly man who lived with his aging mother and who was held in awe because he had actually published something — cowboy stories in a magazine dedicated to the Wild West. He was the only "experienced" writer among us. The problem was he had a terrible stammer. For him, every word was like one of the bucking broncos he wrote about which had the capacity to hurl him from the saddle, landing him on his face in the dust. But he persevered and we hung on his every word.
Unfortunately, my T.S. Eliott pastiches did not amuse him in the least, being laced with references to obscure Roman battles and geologic phenomena that no one (including myself) could make much sense of.
The one poem I do recall which I wrote and had a fondness for was an imitation of an 18th century ode. It was inspired by a very large and painful boil (a sort of carbuncle) which had appeared on my neck and incapacitated me for a week. Thankfully, the salon was a very tolerant one.
It always ended with tea and biscuits. Then the greengrocer and pharmacist would arrive punctually to escort their literary wives home, and the RUC sergeant would trudge off back to the station, having had the satisfaction of hearing one of his short stories praised by the Western writer, signaling the conclusion to another successful gathering.
That was the only literary salon to which I have ever belonged.