The wee Kiwi's an open book

Published Wednesday, 04 July 2012
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Every day, I open my bedroom curtains and gaze at the steeple of the 180 feet high tower of St Mark's Church on 'Bunker Hill' in East Belfast. I never tire of it.

It scintillates in the morning sun and plays with the pink and orange hues of sunset. When the heavens are grey, its red beacon shines through the mist.

Coincidentally, this week's reader's favourite author has a fusional relationship with St Mark: Clive Staples Lewis was baptised there in 1899 by his grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Hamilton, also first Rector of St. Mark's. CS Lewis' strong bond with St Mark's is literally part of the church's furniture in the shape of the window he and his brother Warren offered to the Church in 1935 in memory of their parents.

Just as CS Lewis' spirit intertwines with St Mark's, our reader's dedication and achievements are an integral part of East Belfast's contemporary history. Sammy Douglas, DUP MLA, proud recipient of a Titanic Foundation award for his outstanding contribution to the economy, is a champion of the regeneration process of East Belfast where he has been working for over 20 years. This recent Titanic award follows an MBE for Services to the Community and a Commendation for Outstanding Leadership by the US Department of Commerce.

Sammy grew up in Sandy Row, without much incentive to read children's literature. But he still read, albeit sports magazines, which in the end is all that matters: passive learning is not to be dismissed. It's not ideal, but at least you can improve your grammar and spelling skills, unless of course you are trusting outlets such as Tesco to enlighten you in the apostrophe department (you can print "100's items" on as many banners as you wish, it will never be correct).

"As a child I liked reading soccer magazines and the back pages of the Belfast Telegraph because I was passionate about sport, and football in particular. Coming from a typical Protestant, working-class family, reading books wasn't really encouraged in our home." To this day he continues to read daily "because I'm a news and sports junkie" but now ventures much further than the back pages of the paper. He reads it whole and keeps "up to date with local, national and international events. (...) I read the printed version of the Belfast Telegraph religiously every day. I also get news daily on BBC website, Nuzhound and Twitter links on my iPhone or iPad."

I smiled when Sammy told me the endearing story of his first taste of literature: a second-hand novel passed on by an elderly neighbour who had taken it upon herself to share her books with him.

There is no denying it: when you love reading, you want to pass on all the feelings that accumulated as pages flowed by, keep them alive in someone else's imagination. The first serious book Sammy remembers "reading as a young boy was the novel Gulliver's Travels by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift. It was given to me by Mrs Baker, an elderly Sandy Row neighbour who passed on numerous books to me that had been read by her grandchildren. She is the one person who encouraged me in my love of reading."

This simple neighbourly act snowballed into a passion that never faded. I wish Mrs Baker knew that she's changed a little boy's life for the better.

Sammy discovered literature a bit later than some of our other readers, which maybe explains why he now devours large volumes of literature, starting with Lewis' high fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, his all-time favourite read. Some misled souls may dismiss the Chronicles as books for children, but this would be missing the point completely. In the words of CS Lewis himself, "critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. (...) But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. "

But most importantly, Narnia is a work that can be read on many levels of intellectual, spiritual and emotional understanding, making it accessible to all, young and... less young, which partly explains why it has sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. The National Review's John J. Miller describes its fundamental purpose as being "to convey the reality of Christian truth -- a project that became Lewis's lifework following his conversion in 1931, after his friends Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien convinced him of it during a night time walk. Lewis spent the next 15 years or so giving the lectures and writing the books that would make him the 20th century's most famous Christian."

Sammy has "re-read The Chronicles of Narnia (...). I particularly enjoyed reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was the first of the seven novels written by the author in 1949. In the book we see a great betrayal and exploration of the minute details that lead over time to that betrayal. CS Lewis gives us a glimpse of what redemption can look like; the kind of sacrifice and the type of forgiveness necessary to recover from deceit and disloyalty."

Sammy Douglas DUP

In the vein of his interpretation of Narnia, it probably won't come as a surprise that the book that most influenced Sammy Douglas' political career is the Bible. "For me the Bible clearly paints the picture of Jesus as a political revolutionary and the message he proclaimed not only called for change in the hearts of individuals but also demanded radical and fundamental change in the social, political and economic structures of his day.

His teachings were very much about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, protecting the most vulnerable, tackling injustice and tearing down the pillars of oppression. He also exposed the terrible effects of oppression and poverty on the mind, body, and soul. (...) The Book of Luke, which is my favourite Gospel, (...) speaks to me of the righteous notions of morality, forgiveness, loving your enemies and helping the poor. Northern Ireland and indeed the world in general, would be a much better society if we lived by these principles."

This week Sammy is reading 'The Other Irish' - the Scots-Irish Rascals who Made America, by American writer and filmmaker, Karen F. McCarthy. "I chose it because I have a long-held personal interest in Ulster Scots, or Scots Irish as they are referred to in the USA. I have been captivated by the writings of Dr Ian Adamson on the subject and I have held the role of secretary of the Ullans Academy for a number of years. So far it is a fascinating book about the feisty Scots-Irish who settled the frontier and, with their own nature and values, became the most patriotic of all Americans. They also provided American icons like Davy Crockett, literary giant Mark Twain, not to mention more than twenty US presidents."

To Sammy's credit, he is a 'self-made reader', which takes determination and commands a lot of respect. The later you start, the harder it gets. Imagination, and, to a point, the letting go of emotional barriers need nurturing from a young age. It's not always easy to finish a book, as Steven Agnew acknowledged in a previous article in this series. But Sammy persevered, discovered how much reading adds value to one's emotional and intellectual life and successfully passed his passion on to his family. "I have three brothers and a sister who had the same working-class upbringing as me and discovered their particular interest of reading later in life. I have four children who are all avid readers, especially my eldest son who lives in New Zealand.

He loved CS Lewis and Tolkien as a child but he has a particular passion for Terry Prachett, having read every one of his novels. I have one grandson, Joshua, a wee Kiwi who at nine months old gets stories read to him every day by his mum."

In a way, you are what you read, and Sammy has found food for the mind and soul in reading. In turn, his literary influences have had a direct impact on his professional life and community activities. He concludes this piece I have thoroughly enjoyed writing with a quote from 'The Other Irish' - the Scots-Irish Rascals who made America:

"Rebellious, independent, and fervently religious, thousands of immigrants with grand dreams sailed from Ireland's northern harbours to the new world at the end of the 1700s and tamed the American South."


I would like to close this week's article and introduce the question of the week with a quote from the Lewis' Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which expresses the most profoundly heart-breaking distress I believe one can experience: "I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been - if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you - you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again."

I'd like to know which book has broken your heart and why...

You tell me yours, I'll tell you mine...

© UTV News
Comments Comments
10 Comments
Gordon Wright in Holywood wrote (95 days ago):
Fran, great to meet up with u yesterday. Where have u been all my life!! Hope to do some good work together in the future for those amazing poor wee kids from Asha
farah hassani in Leeds wrote (710 days ago):
As usual, your article is great! I really enjoyed reading the part about Mrs Baker. I does make a difference! I had a similar experience as an adult when Jean, my lovely neighbour in Belfast used to give me her grandchildren's books so I could read them to my son when he was born. I have kept most of them and it always brings wonderful memories...
roy in belfast wrote (749 days ago):
well done again fran. told you i read your blogs
Karen McCarthy in New York wrote (754 days ago):
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this evocative account of the magical place that stories have in childhood memories and beyond. I am particularly honoured that Mr. Douglas has put my book among his favourites. Thank you Sammy and Fran for a truly endearing story.
Nichola Jarvis (Tribal Fitness) in Bangor wrote (755 days ago):
Nice one Fran! Good work.
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Fran Barlet
Fran Barlet

Fran is originally from France and has been living in Northern Ireland for 15 years.

She holds a Post-Master's degree in translation from the University of Lille and a PhD on Northern Irish politics from the University of Paris 8.

She has worked for Human Rights NGOs in Belfast and Brussels and now specialises in communications and media relations.

She's also a very avid reader!

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