Portrait of the artist as a bright spark


MAURICE HAYES'S second volume of boyhood memoirs opens on the day the family moved from the fishing village of Killough, Co Down, to their new home, "a genuine old inn called Denvir's Hotel", in Downpatrick. The year is 1937. The author is 10 years old, and once again Maurice Hayes performs a noteworthy feat of impersonation as he reproduces the beady eye and pert reactions of his boyish self - a portrait of the artist as a bright spark.

Prodigious as the feats of memory are here, they are matched by the author's descriptive gifts. As in the earlier book, there are ready-made anthology pieces on how things are done. The accounts here of for instance, bottling stout, making shoes and slaughtering animals are as sharp and lively as they were the day he saw these things happening. And it isn't only the activities themselves that count, but the self-sufficiency of those working at them - not to mention the delight of the small boy looking on.

The woods and waters of Downpatrick's hinterland also provide descriptive treats, while the sea and the mountains of Mourne do their picturesque thing too. But Maurice Hayes is not particularly in pursuit of the picturesque, but rather of the human. One welcome effect of his affectionate cartography is to suggest a more complicated pattern of land-holding and property distribution than the cliche of the North as a black-and-white, have and have-not, society allows. The author's perspective shows very clearly how well he knows that any community is made up of the crazy-paving of individual lives and the fluctuations of personal fortunes.

Even so, the most sustained and uplifting look at landscape has nothing to do with property, but a view of The Mount (the dun itself, presumably). Under the pretext of a fishing trip, we are taken on a fascinating excursion through layers of signification and association. As well as a delight in its own right, the treatment is also a stimulating reminder that landmarks and habitats are there for us to "read" as well as simply to see.

It's to the town, however, that the author devotes most of his attention. Growing up in a hotel probably cultivates a sensitivity to bustle and being businesslike. In any case, in Downpatrick in those times it was all go. Here again, though, there's more to this picture than meets the eye. As well as portraying a thriving community there is an appreciation of the intricacies and obligations of material life. Food, drink and shelter emerge as not merely economic interests. They are everybody's business, a common ground, more fundamental than matters of sect and station. And from them a culture and an ethic evolve, a complicated net of service, taste, pleasure, care and attention. In the images and instances of town life, the staples of a secular, bourgeois faith may be detected, a confidence in life as found.

In this world, priests and teachers take a back seat, relatively speaking, as does institutional life generally. We hear disappointingly little of the author's father's career as town clerk, though a number of his sound political opinions are relayed. The book ends as Maurice Hayes finishes secondary school. By then the world has widened. World war has come to Belfast, and there's a caravanserai of American troops nearby. The narrative becomes a little ragged and anecdotal towards the end, and the author's personal growth is overshadowed by the novelty of larger events. Nevertheless, Mrs Hayes's homemade black pudding and Aunt Lil's " (potato pancake) sound delicious; in fact, there's plenty of sustenance and pleasure in this vivacious and subtle memoir. {CORRECTION} 96123100071