Homecomings are meaningful reconnections, ideal aspirations for the impossible, grasping for lost coins. As a child, my family home life had been dismantled by rancorous, divorcing parents. As a teenager, I sought refuge in the home of a quite-cosy, co-ed boarding school. In my late teens, I created a home, along with an abandoned dog, in a tumbledown rural cottage. In my early twenties, I found a home in a small gathering. that prayed and tried to live out the bible message, meeting in sitting rooms, each Sunday morning. Eventually I married, and created a home “in my own image”. But what about my inner life, my hopeful thoughts, my poetic inspirations and aesthetic ideals?
In 1980 I was looking after a house at Easter. I randomly switched on the TV one evening. A programme had just started. It was a dramatised biographical documentary, called A Different Drummer. The subject featured was Jack Clemo, a blind and deaf Christian poet from Cornwall.
As a result of that programme, I initiated a long correspondence with Clemo, became friends with him, and visited him twice. For thirteen years, up to his death, he was my main role model, as a Christian writer.
Six months later, I went to view the movie Breaking Away. It was an American coming of age comedy-drama film that follows a group of four male teenage working-class friends, who spend their time together swimming in an old abandoned water-filled quarry. They often clash with the more affluent Indiana University students in their hometown, who habitually refer to them as “cutters”, a derogatory term for local offspring of stonecutters who worked the quarries.
On exiting the cinema I had a distinct mystical experience about my going to America. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know when. Nine months later, I disembarked a jet in O’Hara Airport in Chicago, to attend a summer writing programme. It took place at Wheaton College, a Christian Liberal Arts college, outside Chicago.
That dynamic, creative writing class was facilitated by Larry Woiwode, an established author and contributor to The New Yorker. Inspirationally, I was set on fire, through interacting with English Literature students. After six weeks in the US I returned to my humdrum job in a used bookstore, packing parcels, taking phone orders and doing the post.
That autumn I entered a nationwide competition run by Poetry Ireland. Much to my surprise, I happened to win it. So much was stacked against me winning. Even though I had been writing for ten years, I’d had little published.
My poem was an historical biography, about the accidental discovery of printing in Europe, in the 15th century. I had written the first draft just a few days before, so had little chance for revision. My competition entry was late as the forms had been distributed late. To further complicate matters, some weeks after my submission, I sent a pertinent historical note for the poem’s context. This should have disqualified my entry.
Two month’s later, as I was typing a poem about my Americana cultural experience, a telegram came to my house. It stated that I was the poetry competition winner and was to make myself present at the Peacock Theatre at 7p.m. sharp the next day.
What a watershed moment, for his self-educated poet and writer. Prior to this, my only published output was quite a number of trenchant letters to editors of national newspapers. Only one poem had been published, and that in a woman’s magazine. To see my poem get affirmed by the competition adjudicator, Liam Miller of Dolmen Press, was my biggest breakthrough ever. The Poetry Ireland journal editor, John Jordan’s witty esteem was also beyond my wildest literary dreams.
On the strength of that poem winning I quit my used bookstore job. I took time off and used my £250 prize money to publish a collection called, The Homecoming. Vainly optimistic, I published 400 copies on the strength of the award win. Jack Clemo wrote a back cover puff.
In The Homecoming there were prose accounts about creative friendships, boarding school, a visit to a girlfriend’s family farm, living in a country tumble-down cottage, Carraig Books used bookstore and a bog visit. The poems were about Jack Clemo, my Americana praise poem, persecuted Russian Orthodox faith, Russian pilgrims, a father-son poem and an imaginary romance.
My new-found literary vindication was underpinned by a energetic evangelical Christian faith. Later, in an unexpected development, selling these The Homecoming into bookshops earned me a new bookshop position, in Hodges Figgis, a large Dublin bookshop.
Looking back I now celebrate those organic developments and providential themes in my writing life and my 21 year bookselling career. I welcomed the affirmation, the redemption from generational sadness. My self-doubt “pressed pause” for quite a long period of time….