World Book Day: My Favourite Book
A host of arts sector luminaries, including Lucy Caldwell, Ralph McLean and David Park, reveal their all-time favourite reads, from 'How Music Works' to 'David Copperfield'
Philip Hammond, composer – Narziss and Goldmund, by Herman Hesse
It was December 1974, and a first present from a new partner initiating a ten-year clandestine relationship, a 40-year friendship. Belfast was not a liberal environment – as a homosexual, I had been brought up to understand that people who were different were not acceptable and never had been.
It was exotic to read about what the rest of the world already knew about the many aspects of human attraction. It was revelatory to learn about human relationships. It was overwhelming to understand, gradually, the many paradoxes of human love.
Reading Narziss and Goldmund resulted in my first comprehension that fulfilment is an individual choice, that not everybody has the same goals, that conformity is not the only option in a society which was, at that time, intent upon tearing itself asunder.
Hesse's novel embodied the two people in my relationship, though even now I am not sure who was who, who was to become whom. Was I Narziss or was I Goldmund? Was I the benign but ascetic and retiring teacher – all seeing, all embracing – or was I the headstrong youth who wanted to take on the world? Did I want to show every emotion I felt or hide everything until it was too late? I’m still not sure.
Lucy Caldwell, novelist and playwright – The Tailypo, by Joanna and Paul Galdone
One of my first favourite books remains the most deliciously scary story I’ve ever read. First published in 1977, the story is based on the old Appalachian folktale of the 'tailypo' or 'taileybones'. When a starving lone huntsman chops off and eats the tail of a strange varmint, the creature comes back for revenge, and not even his three big hunting dogs can save him.
Joanna Galdone’s version of the story is tense and rhythmic, and Paul Galdone’s illustrations are gorgeously evocative: the old man cowering beneath his patchwork quilt, the sun rising over the swamp, the lolloping hounds and the flashes of the yellow-eyed, sharp-clawed creature.
My sisters and I used to terrify each other with the story: the scratch scratch scratch of the creature’s claws as it prowls around the cabin trying to get in, the eerie voice calling the plaintive, chilling refrain, 'You know and I know, all I want is my tailypo...'
There was nothing more thrilling than huddling up in the same bunkbed and conjuring up the pointed ears, the round eyes, the sharp claws, as the creature creeps up the covers to scratch the poor old man to pieces. Guaranteed to captivate audiences of any age this World Book Day, it gives a whole new meaning to things that go bump in the night.
David Park, author – David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
I have a metaphorical shelf of favourite books and on occasions such as this I try to give each its turn, so today it’s Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, with its extensive collection of unforgettable characters and the economic truth that might have saved us: 'Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered...'
Written from Dickens' own childhood’s sense of abandonment and shadowed by both the debtors’ prison and the blacking factory, it reveals the delicate complexities of the human heart on every page. There are so many set pieces to remember, and not least the death of Barkis, whose final words are 'Barkis is willin’', and whose soul – as is the custom with these coastal dwellers – goes out with the tide.
In Betsey Trotwood’s words to David, we also have as good advice as any I know on how to try and live: 'Never be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel.' In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens admitted 'that like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.' That revelation from the father of so many wonderful children should serve to renew our interest in this timeless story.
VerseChorusVerse, musician – Jupiter's Travels, by Ted Simon
Ironically, I first came across this book via the enemy of books: television! It was 2004 and I had just had surgery on a hernia and was housebound for a few weeks. I was watching Long Way Round, a motorcycle travel documentary starring the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and they were somewhere in Mongolia (I think) when they met up with the man who was the inspiration for their travels: Ted Simon.
Simon had been a journalist for The Times in the 1970s and, feeling the frustrations of the rat race, he approached his editor with the idea of traveling the world on an old Triumph motorcycle (which he named Jupiter) and sending his reports back detailing his experiences – at the paper's expense, of course. He undertook this journey with zero riding experience, learning along the way.
Simon spent nearly five years on his (not always so) trusty iron steed, going through ordeals such as being locked up as a suspected spy upon his arrival in South America after an uneasy sailing from the Cape of Good Hope, and being worshipped as a God. He rode through wars and revolutions, to easy living in a California commune.
More recently, Simon re-created his journey, liaising with McGregor and Boorman whilst writing his follow up, Dreaming Of Jupiter. Simon is like Woody Guthrie with a motorcycle in place of a guitar, a journalist picking up the stories and traditions of thousands of people.
Moyra Donaldson, poet – Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
Read to me by my mother, chapter by chapter when I was a child, Black Beauty is certainly a story with an agenda. But it is also a good story, which is why I couldn’t wait for the next bedtime, the next chapter. I wanted to know what would become of Beauty and Ginger and Captain.
What I didn’t realise at the time is that Black Beauty is also a story that allows the reader to experience the effects of objectification, illustrating the ideological struggles of all the disempowered.
It speaks its clear Quaker ethic of responsibility: to stand up for the oppressed, to not ignore cruelty or wrong doing, that ignorance is no excuse. I didn’t realise at the time the extent to which I was internalising this message, grafting it into my moral code. Black Beauty is a book that impacted on how I saw the world.
Stuart Bailie, CEO of the Oh Yeah Music Centre – The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
I understand how some readers don't care for Ernest Hemingway. Too many guys with big guns. A surplus of dead animals. Soldiers and bullfighters and much virility. For those reasons I have passed over several of his books. But still I am fascinated by the man. He lived through remarkable times and was often at the centre of history.
The Old Man And the Sea, published in 1952, was his last novel. Once again it’s about a guy facing an elemental test. Santiago the fisherman seems unable to catch anything. Actually, he is holding out for an enormous marlin, a quest that will take a lifetime of resource, wisdom and humility. Sure enough he makes the catch and steers back to the shore, fending off the sharks that will tear chunks out of the carcass.
It’s a short book. The prose is neat but resonant. The last lines are full of poetry and you realise that the story has been mapped out for this destination. A myth, essentially. I read it often and when I visited Cuba in 2001 I checked out Cojimar, east of Havana, the setting for the story. I’m glad I visited, but the story transcends mere place.
Malachi O'Doherty, journalist and author – Amongst Women, by John McGahern
I have been absorbed into the world of John McGahern’s bleak family novels, especially Amongst Women. This describes the life of a wife and children who have to endure and survive a narcissistic thug of a father who can only ever be unctuous or enraged.
This is a novel about a type of man who can never concede that he is wrong and needs absolute power over his household. Relations evolve as the children grow up and his authority slips away. The realisation of that oppressed domestic milieu is always plausible, dark, horrific and familiar. McGahern’s best.
Annie McCartney, novelist and playwright – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
I was once told off by my first schoolteacher for reading in class. But, despite her initial reaction, Miss K relented, and each day during 'reading' she let me pick a book from the cream foldaway bookshelf, the books held in with curtain wires and facing out so that you could see the covers. I read every single book in it that year.
I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without books. My mother, an ardent reader herself, taught me to read before I was five. We didn’t have many books at home, except for Christmas annuals, but my mother went regularly to the library and I went along too. Our lives were not exciting – we didn’t have TV, we weren’t well off, we didn’t get holidays – but I traveled all over the world through books, and all over Belfast too.
I must have walked miles in pursuit of a new title, visiting libraries on the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Oldpark, the Donegal, as well as Central Library on Royal Avenue. I hated Tuesdays because the libraries closed half day!
I got through a lot of classics before I was mature enough to know what they were about. Oddly the only time I cut back on my obsessive reading was when I started to study English at Queen’s University – it interfered too much with my social life. One book, still a favourite, did impress me in first year, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Reading remains one of my greatest pleasures.
Neil Cowley, musician-in-residence for UK City of Culture 2013 – How Music Works, by David Byrne
How Music Works is a favourite book of mine that I'm constantly in the process of reading. I picked it up in an airport in the US somewhere; I thought it would get me through the impending long haul flight. It's one of those kind of books you can randomly pick up at any chapter or paragraph and feel immediately comfortable with – an approach that Byrne actively encourages, it having been written chapter by chapter in no particular order.
Being the lead singer of Talking Heads, Byrne's is a fascinating story. But his career story is used here not in the biographical sense, but as a vehicle for illustrating the various discussion points that he raises along the way. He is clever to avoid stonewall conclusions wherever possible. Music being ephemeral, it is virtually impossible to pin down, and Byrne celebrates the art form for this.
Opinions on the digitization of music, vinyl, CDs and miming on stage are all given. It is refreshing to read Byrne's words on the notion that recorded music is such an entirely different beast to live music, and to learn of things such the Graduola, an early 20th century home recording kit which led to a YouTube-type hysteria amongst its users, with everyone sharing their amateur homemade phonographs.
To summarise, How Music Works accurately targets where music lives today. Byrne argues that, despite the seeming demise of its industrial wing, music will continue to morph and evolve into new and exciting strands. As long as people love music, music will live on – and they constantly do.
Noirin McKinney, Arts Council of Northern Ireland Director of Arts Development – My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
I love this book because it combines two of my passions – high visual art and crime writing – being in essence a murder mystery, but with so much more. It is an entire portrait of the chasm between East and West studied through the separate roots of our artistic traditions, and happily a love story as well.
Set in the exotic and somewhat neurotic world of a group of miniaturist painters in the Istanbul of 1591, we join them on their quest for sublime truth – one blighted, however, by the heresy of a break with the sacred traditions handed down over the centuries, and the catastrophic consequences of this for art, beauty and civilisation.
This seismic struggle is narrated to us through the voices of several characters (or figures) in the book: the murdered painter, a coin which turns up like a good penny in unexpected places, Satan, and the colour red itself, one of the essential ingredients in Islamic art. A delight of a book, from beginning to end.
Ralph McLean, broadcaster – The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
This was the first book I remember reading and re-reading as a youth. It gave me a taste for all things Sherlock Holmes, and a passion for crime fiction in general that has stayed with me to this day.
Like many a goggle-eyed youth who spends too much time ensconced in his own fantasy world, I was familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation through Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes in those cheap and cheerful black and white movie versions that used to run on BBC2 in the early evenings.
Those short, pulpy adventures with the wonderfully aloof Rathbone bullying his way through mysteries in a fog-bound London, with the great Nigel Bruce bumbling away beside him as his faithful sidekick Watson, really caught my teenage imagination. I was keen to learn everything I could about the Baker Street detective.
The first paperback I remember devouring was The Sign Of Four, but the one that really dragged me into the magical world of Holmes was Baskervilles. It had everything: excitement, adventure, mystery, great characters, a real sense of period, a huge, slavering beast roaming the moors and, most importantly, a pace that made you want to keep on turning the pages. It’s a while since I last re-read it, but even mentioning it now makes me want to go back to it one more time.