World Book Day: I grew up in a house of books
I started to read before I learned to read. The first books that hooked me were Dad’s Beano annuals
Alan Nolan: author of Sam Hannigan’s Rockstar Granny, Ireland’s World Book Day Book 2019
When I was a kid I lived in a house that was jam-packed with books.
My Dad was a big book lover and had bookshelves, bookcases and book-boxes in every room of the house – the kitchen, the living-cum-dining room, the bedrooms, the loo – and each bookshelf, bookcase and book-box was crammed full of books. There were books about the first World War, books about the second World War, books about Native American tribes, old Beano and Dandy annuals, Dale Carnegie self-help books for budding entrepreneurs – my father had what you might call an eclectic palette when it came to reading.
My sister and I would build forts out of the books. We’d build steps so we could reach the books on the higher shelves. When we were fighting, which was quite often, we’d build a dividing wall out of books down the centre of our living room so we wouldn’t have to look at each other. But most of all, we would read them.
I started to read before I learned to read – the first of my Dad’s books that hooked me were the Beano annuals; before I went to school and learned how to read words, I would sit with a pile of annuals and read the stories from panel to panel, gazing at every detail of the pictures. Soon Dad was bringing home Asterix and Tintin books for me to gaze at. I didn’t have much of a clue as to what was actually happening, but I made up my own stories to fit the sequential pictures as I went along. Soon I began copying the pictures and making my own comics, an endeavour that earned me extra pocket money once I started school and had a captive market.
Although we lived in a tiny terraced house in Windy Arbour, we somehow crammed in (between all the books) my Mum, my Dad and my sister, as well as my granny, my great-granny and my grand-aunt. To this day I have no idea where they all slept. My great-granny, Nanny Gigg, used to joke that if she wanted to scratch her nose she had to open a window so her elbow wouldn’t break through the glass. My greats and grands were, to a woman, all fantastic readers and storytellers, and myself and my sister were sent to sleep each night with either tales of naughty olden-day schoolchildren (Nanny Gigg), horror stories (granny Lizzie Bunn) or tips for upcoming horse races (grand-aunt Georgie).
My poor Nanny Gigg sadly toppled off her perch when I was quite young, but stories about her passed into legend in the tightly-packed Nolan household. I remember my Dad recounting how he used to come home from school, change out of his school uniform to go out and play football with his pals on the road. Nanny Gigg would sometimes don his discarded uniform, pulling on the grey pants, shrugging into the grey shirt and tie, and togging out in the school top-coat before joining the urchins in the street for games of skipping and hopscotch. Standing only five foot tall with a mop of grey hair, Nanny Gigg was much loved among the local children and was famed particularly for her tree-climbing talent. She loved to show off, regularly climbing to the top of the highest horse-chestnut tree across the road from our house. One day, though, she somehow managed to get stuck at the top of the tree, and the worried children below called the fire brigade for assistance. When the engine arrived with sirens blaring, the moustachioed fireman who climbed up the ladder to rescue the unfortunate “schoolboy” was very surprised to find an elderly, grey-haired granny clinging to the topmost branches, decked out in a purloined St. Anne’s National School uniform and blowing him grateful kisses.
Nanny Gigg loved to torment my father’s dog, a placid, yellow-furred mutt called Roy, by dressing him in my Dad’s discarded baby shawls and bonnets. On fine days she used to place the dressed-up doggo into the massive Silver Cross pram that sat rusting in the back yard, pull a blanket over him and wheel him up to the shops. If any of her old-lady friends would stop to admire her “grandson”, Gigg would whip the blanket off and roar, “Here he is, Missus Wilson – do you like me hairy baby?!”
My greats and grands would tell these stories at bedtime with tears of laughter rolling down their creased cheeks. After they crept downstairs myself and my sister would often laugh ourselves to sleep with images of our loopy and much-loved Nanny Gigg, the geriatric original Bash Street Kid, dancing around our imaginations. I wrote Nanny Gigg into my Sam Hannigan series of books and I’m hoping that the wrinkly would-be school kid is up there somewhere, sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp and laughing along with the tall tales. My granny and grand-aunt Georgie certainly passed on their love of storytelling and books to my sister and me, much the same way as they had passed it on to my Dad decades before.
And I have done my best to pass on my love of books to my own kids. In this respect I am ably abetted by my wife who reads three times as much as I do. My own house is not as jam-packed with books as my father’s was, but it’s getting there. I tend to collect graphic novels rather than my Dad’s war books, but the Beano annuals are still much in evidence, as are my beloved Tintin and Asterix volumes.
One day, in turn, I hope my own three boys will pass on the love of reading to their children. And in this world of Netflix and Kindles and tablets and FitBits, they can rest assured that I will be there for future family members, just like my greats and grands and father and mother were for me.
But if my kids are reading this, give it a few years yet before adding any little ‘uns to the mix, eh chaps?
Sam Hannigan’s Rockstar Granny by Alan Nolan is Ireland’s World Book Day Book 2019. Alan lives and works in Bray, Co Wicklow. He is co-creator (with Ian Whelan) of Sancho comic which was shortlisted for two Eagle awards, and is the author and illustrator of The Big Break Detectives Casebook, the Murder Can Be Fatal series, Fintan’s Fifteen, Conor’s Caveman, Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week and Sam Hannigan and the Last Dodo.