Event Review: Brian Keenan at the Bluecoat

Written by Vanessa Chellembron, audience member at the Bluecoat

Brian Keenan with Vanessa
Brian Keenan with Vanessa

Brian Keenan is best known for being taken hostage in Beirut in 1985, a strange thing to be know for, but nonetheless, the reason we know him – this and An Evil Cradling, his account of the time taken from him.

An Evil Cradling is not just an account of being held hostage, it is a profoundly moving book, a story of one man’s emotional journey through the turbulence; the harshness and depravity is there, but along with it is a wondrous humour and vitality. It is a story of the intense connection with his fellow captive John McCarthy, they shared a hilarity and love which fed their spirits and spurred them on in spite of the worst imaginable circumstances.

It is an extraordinary account of humanity, humility and humour, a remarkable book which has helped me in my life. Quite frankly Brian Keenan is one of my heroes, so when I heard he was doing a reading at the Bluecoat (Friday 16th Oct), I knew I had to go.

He read from his new book I’ll Tell Me Ma, not so much an autobiography as a collection of memories from his childhood. Memories that for him led on to stranger and long-forgotten memories, thoughts of a young boy now interpreted by an adult mind, connections made as skeletons gently revealed their secrets.

Brian Keenan was rather sweetly nervous at the beginning, saying that the audience were more threatening than a bunch of Arab terrorists(!), but relaxed as he read to us, then happily answered questions from Jane Davis and the audience.

He is a charming man and spoke from his heart, he said that his emotions are always close to the surface, he lives through them – a lesson to us all.

He did a book signing after the event, and took time for everyone. He very kindly agreed when my friend asked if I could have my photo taken with him (I was too in awe of him to ask!), and seemed delighted to show his human and rather mischievous side.

Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes was wrong. It was an honour to meet Brian Keenan, he is a truly lovely man.

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Jane Davis, Director of The Reader Organisation, hosted this event with Brian Keenan and she says this of her experience:

Anyone who has read An Evil Cradling will know that Brian Keenan has written  one of the most extraordinary books of the twentieth century, giving voice to key experiences and fears of our time. The book is a moving testament to a courage and resilience which seems to arise from but also be greater than the individual.

I’ll Tell Me Ma, his new memoir (not at all miserable)  is an account, to use an old fashioned phrase, of the development of a soul, the soul that became the man who survived the brutal captivity described in the first book. The book is a series of vivid memories and meditations, a rather Wordsworthian account of a lonely and deeply felt childhood.

Reading and rereading the books was my prep for the Chapter and Verse event at Bluecoat last week, and they helped, but nothing had prepared me for the depth of feeling, wit, gentleness and deeply individual creature that  is Brian Keenan. I felt I was meeting someone who utterly become himself, crystallised, absolute. It was a great pleasure and an experience that will stay with me, and I think many members of the audience, for a long time.

Get Into Reading Group Diary #4: The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn

Baines has a growing obsession with a Peter Eames – an architect in the 1860’s who had a flourishing career until deciding to take on a venture of a rather grand FREE library to be built not in the well to do area of Liverpool but of all things in the poor section! Reading may have been thought of as something only people with money do! What fascinated Baines was Eames’ short tragic life – his body found in Blundell Sands in suspicious circumstances.

Baines being a fellow architect took a great interest in Eames’s thoughts which he obtained from William Brown Street in the form of his diaries – wanting to know more, what a better place to look than a diary which hopefully holds a person’s innermost thoughts? I think you should never judge a person by his outer shell but his inner being (sorry becoming a philosopher now!) The group started thinking about diaries and how personal they can be, and how peculiar it can be to look back at an event from years ago and how it seemed a big upheaval when originally written but now totally insignificant

Eames appeared to have lots of forward thinking about architecture which did not come to fruition – maybe because of lack of money or people who made the final discussions were backward thinking instead of forward. Over the last few years Liverpool has represented a building site – especially running up to the year of culture 08 – at times it seemed like a marathon to get things ready rather than a sprint. It was quite amusing though to realise that things were just as chaotic here in Liverpool in 1861 – Peter Eames also describing the city as a construction site!

In the book the other day Baines met up with a photographer called Tanquerary who he felt an instant bond with – funny in life how we sometimes instantly bond with someone or maybe have an instant dislike for no apparent reason. Strangely, very strangely I was in Slater Street the other day and a shiver went down my spine as there was a photography van there!!! Sleep Well!

Literacy Changes Your Brain

The Mind Hacks blog reports on a study showing that literacy has a measurable physical effect on the structure of the brain. From the post:

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Manuel Carreiras, recruited a group of ex-paramilitaries who could read less than five simple words on a Spanish reading and writing test, and compared them to a similar group who learnt to read and write from an early age.

The research team use MRI scans to compare differences in brain structure between the two groups to allow an insight into how brain anatomy changes to accommodate reading and writing.

While it is possible to do this with children, it is almost impossible to separate out which are the brain changes due specifically to acquiring literacy and which are just part of the massive changes that constantly take place as children develop.

Here’s the link.

Posted by Chris Routledge

Get Into Reading Group Diary #3: The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn

It’s turning into a Friday regular… here’s Louise Jones’ next installment.

Extract 3

I am definitely learning new words and expressions reading this book and we always ensure we’ve got a dictionary ready. When Baines gave May, his auntie, a piece of jewellery for his 60th birthday she exclaimed she was ‘as gay as a wasp in a window’! This shows the change of use of words over the years. When we are dancing about with emotion, I would never have thought of it being likened to a wasp dancing about but the more you think of it the expression of the wasp somehow fits rather well.

Time to Read

The Time To Read website has recently been updated with new news.

Jane Mathieson, Regional Reader Development Co-ordinator for North West Libraries, has drawn our attention to a completely unedited piece supplied by a user of Halton Lea Library, giving his initial impressions of the newly refurbished library.

It’s very refreshing to read something so positive, which has been written spontaneously and generously. You can read the piece by clicking here.

Get Into Reading Group Diary #2: The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn

Here’s the second installment from Louise Jones’ Get Into Reading group diary.

Extract 2

Baines is a historian who has lately found it difficult to get going with the work he knows he should be doing now as he keeps postponing the inevitable – I know exactly how he feels! ‘I’ll just see what is going on in TV world before writing about The Rescue Man!’

Despite being in his mid-30’s there seems to be no major love aspect to his life which makes Baines think that ‘the fault may lay in himself, a hairline flaw in the structure of his personality.’ I found this statement from the book very appealing as it takes a strong man to admit that faults may lie within his own personality! The statement also fits in with his interest in architecture – a building needs to have strong foundations to be able to overcome the elements of the outside world just like a human being also needs strong foundations to be able to stand up to all that life throws at you.

Baines being unmarried and a bit of a loner makes his uncle and aunt perhaps over welcome any friend he may bring to meet them, petrified he would lost his only friend Jack. In life people tend to interfere in people’s social life, not perhaps realising they may need a helping hand, but on the whole may be quite happy.

Get Into Reading Group Diary #1: The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn

Extracts from Louise Jones’ Reading Diary of The Rescue Man

Louise Jones, a Get Into Reading group member, has been diligently keeping diary entries of her reading experiences of The Rescue Man in our Wednesday morning group over the last few weeks and we are extremely grateful to Louise for letting us share her thoughts with the wider reading community. Thank you Louise and please keep them coming!

Extract 1

I love starting a new book, not knowing what adventures I will go on without leaving the room!

As we live on the Wirral and Liverpool is just a swim away, straight away a common bond began to grow with the book when places such as Church Street and Sefton Park were mentioned. I don’t know though whether the pages would stir the same feelings if reading this in deepest Colchester (nothing against Colchester people!) Actually the way Quinn describes Liverpool and the surrounding areas you could be a Glaswegian and still appreciate the descriptiveness of the city.

The character of Baines himself sometimes worries about his love for old things such as buildings, especially when he seems to love things even more once their doom is certain. This is still happening in 2009 – we often don’t think of a building or historical sites being of importance until all of a sudden a block of flats stand were an impressive building once stood. This can also happen with people when a person passes away. All you hear of is what a fantastic person they were – I often wonder why we wait for a person’s passing to realise what they meant to us.

I will always have a smirk on my face now though whenever I pass the monument of Queen Victorian after finding out from the book that it was actually built over a public toilet – this may not be true of course but it makes me wonder what does actually lie beneath her whenever I go by!

Recommended Reads: The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther

by John Flamson, Director of Strategic Partnerships & Development, University of Liverpool.

I read this book recently, after being advised to get in touch with my feminine side(!). The Saffron Kitchen (2006) by Yasmin Crowther, is a tale of an Anglo-Iranian household, one woman’s journey and the impact on those around her.

It has a slow-burn pace but like a good symphony, leads you somewhere. And that somewhere for me was a renewed understanding of the enduring need to belong and the agony as well as the glory of being generous of spirit. Not bad for someone who received it reluctantly from someone who dubbed it as ‘a woman’s read’!

Get Into Reading Group Diary: The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn

By Clare Williams, Get Into Reading Project Worker

We began reading The Rescue Man in June and are currently just over one third of the way into this impressive first novel by Anthony Quinn. Reactions from the group have been mixed although all are agreed that the book is certainly rich in thought provoking material to give plenty of food for thought! The general consensus at present seems to be that group members are very interested in the book in terms of the ideas it offers for discussion, but don’t quite like it as a novel in terms of those fundamental basics of character and plot. This in itself however has generated interesting debates about what we as readers want out of a novel, and especially what we want out of a novel to be read in one of our weekly GIR groups. Whilst one group member has criticised the book for being ‘too slow’, saying that they’d ‘like more to be happening – more characters, like we had in Great Expectations’, others have responded with the caution that ‘it’s no use jumping straight into it – you need to get to know the people’s characters first.’

So far we have been learning about the story of a rambling historian called Tom Baines, who appears somewhat cut adrift from life, unable or unwilling to live in the present and embrace its glorious randomness with all of its human characters and unpredictable events. Baines, an orphan with an unwavering attachment to his native city of Liverpool, is a man who fears commitment, whether that mean commitment to people – in one scene he falls into a self-deprecating fit of anxiety and remorse when a girl called Brenda invites him to a party – or a commitment to his profession. His love of architecture is a clue to his need for solid structures, permanent anchors in life and yet with the onset of the Second World War even this ostensibly stable crutch appears to be disappearing from his grasp. One other thing we have learnt about Baines is that he is a man who is plagued with the guilt of a brooding secret – blaming himself for the suicide of Alice Thorn, a girl who Baines once had a great affection for but who fell under the influence of a careless lover Duncan Heathcote. This past seems to only exacerbate his need for caution and tendency towards indecision.

As a group we have felt that a change needs to happen to Tom Baines for him to make a change within himself and his way of looking at life – indeed, for the story of the book itself to move and grow. That change appears to be being opened up in the novel, firstly in his meeting of two fellow enthusiasts Richard Tanqueray and his socialist wife Bella and secondly with the outbreak of war, which forces him into a position of action rather than what for Baines has become a rather dilapidating cycle of thought. This outlet for action comes in the form of Baines joining The Rescue Men. Maybe now things will begin to change for Baines and also pick up the pace of the novel which is the thing that seems to be wanted be some of our group members. It may also come to him in his reading of the diary of Peter Eames, a Victorian architect – indeed one group member feels that the diary might actually provide Baines with the ‘key’ that he seems to be looking for to make sense of his own life.

The book is set in Liverpool and as local readers we are all in agreement that it is meticulous in its recreation of the architecture and moreover mood of the city during the 1940’s. We have all been fascinated by the author’s descriptions of local buildings and streets and feel that we have gained a greater appreciation into what makes up a history of a building, a city. The book itself is infused throughout with a kind of mystical reverence for the past and the ghosts of lives which once inhabited the familiar buildings which many of us continue to pass each day. The book’s inclusion of Peter Eame’s diary only adds to this sense of mystery, enriching the novel with revolutionary ideas about art and life as forwarded by the likes of John Ruskin. Indeed, the book is rich in all kinds of literary allusions – including ones to Great Expectations – but yet again we are talking about ideas here rather than characters, and while ideas are all very interesting, the group is still waiting to be gripped by the characters in the book and the unfolding of their life stories by which as we readers are still waiting to be gripped. Ironically the author has put its readers perhaps too closely into the mindset of its central character Tom Baines – we are now ourselves waiting to see how the novel will unfold, waiting ourselves for the tide that another Liverpool writer, that other great Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough, referred to as ‘the tide in the love affair of mortals’ which must be taken at full flood if it is to be assuredly taken at all. However, as Clough also recognised and we have seen Tom Baines experiencing, this is easier said than done and it is perhaps the case that Quinn is challenging our desires as readers to make us appreciate and sympathise with Baines or even Peter Eames as another human being by making us vicariously living through the confusions and complications and procrastinations of their lives. We shall see!