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I Could Read The Sky - Book Review, Angela Billing

Updated: May 18, 2020

Angela Billing, member of the Book club

I Could Read The Sky -

Timothy O’Grady & Steve Pyke

We have all read a book we think everyone should read, and this is mine. The preface by John Berger begins: “I dare not go deeply into this book, for if I did, I would stay with it forever and I wouldn’t return.”

This was one of the earlier books we covered when the book club first began. It was recommended by the late, great Tommy Walsh, who had heard this book being discussed on RTE radio and suggested we read it.

I was completely blown away by this book and it has always stayed with me. I have never read such a richly atmospheric book and although we have read a lot of books and poetry about Irish emigration, none have taken me on such a lyrically memorable journey as this.

The story is of an old man a labourer from the West of Ireland who played the accordion, recalled from his bed in Kentish Town, London, a life of migration in pictures and words.

The book is a collaboration with photographer Steve Pyke. Photography is an act of memory and Steve Pyke captures this beautifully in the book, his photographs possessing a ghostliness that adds to the atmosphere and brings the novel to life.

The text is both minimal and musical and these qualities, I think, makes it a little masterpiece. An example of what I mean is this description of the so called ‘unskilled man.’

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky. Make a barrel for mackerel. Mend roads. Make a boat. Stuff a saddle. Put a wheel on a cart. Strike a deal. Make a field. Work the swarth turner, the float and the thresher. I could read the sea. Shoot straight. Make a shoe. Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes. Plough and harrow. Read the wind. Tend bees. Bind wyndes. Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories. I knew the song to sing to a cow when milking. I could play twenty-seven tunes on my accordion.

What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the manners of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from West Kerry. Wear boots or shoes made from rubber. Best PJ in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.

Timothy O’Grady says in an article with the Irish times that whilst researching the book the phrase ‘kill a Sunday’ was often heard when talking to Irish immigrants. This hit home to me as Sunday was a rest day and therefore little else to do but think of home and days gone by: ‘memory hurts wherever you touch it.’

Incidentally Mark Knopfler wrote a song based on this book called ‘Mighty Man’ and the book was also adapted for stage and screen.


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