Growing up in rural Northern Ireland was often a privilege – long summer days spent roaming ‘the fields’ with my brother and sister; late evenings with neighbours and cousins playing football until the light went out of the sky; the excitement of the mobile library visiting with unknown pages to devour. There was another side of life at that time too though, the one where the sound of army helicopters filled the quiet sky and when ‘bombscare’ was an all too familiar term to a child.
I was a bookish young girl. I loved to read, I loved the escape, the excitement of entering new worlds and characters becoming friends. I was intrigued by the adventures of The Four Marys in Bunty, I yearned for a midnight picnic like the girls at St Clare’s and oh how much did I want homemade lemonade like the Secret Seven! Those books were so removed from me and my experience of childhood, then Joan Lingard came along and nudged my imagination closer to home!
The Sadie and Kevin series of books pictured (£1-£2, Oxfam) feature these central characters who were from Belfast, Protestant and Catholic respectively. The first book in the series The Twelfth Day of July is the beginning of their love story. They meet as teens and their relationship is set against the politics of the time – the absolute antithesis of my Enid Blyton reading!
And yet I loved those books. As a country girl, Belfast was exotic. I remember reading about Sadie and Kevin heading up Cave Hill to eat fish and chips, and thinking I’d definitely do that one day. The dialogue was so real, the characters so finely tuned, and the idea that we could all get through the challenges we faced, despite our different backgrounds and experiences, was so vivid. Sadie and Kevin personified hope, even though as a child I probably didn’t quite realise what it was that I loved so much about them.
When I first saw A Proper Place on the shelves of Oxfam Books, Botanic a little while ago everything I loved about reading those books came flooding back and I’ve been picking up the series, book by book again in Oxfam since. I’m still missing Hostages to Fortune but I know it will turn up. I was a bit fearful of re-reading something that meant so much to me, and I was worried about losing the magic. I needn’t have been. Having lived in Belfast now for almost 20 years, I feel even closer to Sadie and Kevin. Their story is just as powerful now as it was then, perhaps for different reasons.
This bookish country girl DID eventually find her own Belfast boy although I haven’t yet had my fish supper on Cave Hill! And while NI is not a perfect place yet (we still have a way to go) it has a proper place in my heart.