I'll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan

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I'll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley
Reviewed by Madeline Wheatley
Summary: Brian Keenan recalls his childhood in 1950's Belfast. The city and its people are brought vividly to life in this memoir of a lost time and place.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224062169

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Keenan memorably told the story of his years as a hostage in Beirut in An Evil Cradling. Now he turns to his childhood. Anyone who had an urban upbringing in the 1950's will find themselves saying I remember that! at intervals throughout this book. Senior Service cigarettes, Pontefract cakes, the rag and bone man, the Lone Ranger, family photographs kept in an old biscuit tin, Dad polishing everyone's shoes, the realisation that there was a wider world beyond the city streets…These are some of the things that brought back my own memories – what can you find?

The grey post war environment of Belfast creeps from the pages into the reader's mind. Ship building, dockyards, serried rows of workers' houses, street vendors and city eccentrics feature throughout. But more than anything the book is a song of praise to the people who formed Keenan's early life. His parents, the Birdman, his secondary school head teacher and English teacher are among those singled out for detailed attention. Keenan's condemnation of the pathetic educational apartheid that was the grammar and secondary modern system is leavened by his praise for the teachers who made his experience of secondary school anything but second rate.

There is no great focus on the growing sectarian troubles that form a key part of Belfast's history. The giant bonfires that burned every year to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne were a source of boyish excitement and fun in Keenan's early childhood. Only later does the atmosphere change and he sees these events featuring people moving through the burning grounds on rivers of alcohol, their mood blacker than the streets. The book is about people much more than events, and it is through the people that the city comes to life.

The final part of the book deals with Keenan's changing relationship with his parents, particularly his mother, and his parents' declining years. His description of his mother's slide into Alzheimer's and the challenges this brings to her children is profoundly moving. Here too there is a wealth of familiar moments for anyone who has had a similar experience.

Autobiographies often seem the preserve of those blessed with photographic memories or who have kept detailed diaries, so it was refreshing to read Keenan's worries that the past was a big black abyss. His admission of struggling to remember aspects of his early life, and the need to use people, places and histories to spark off memories made this a more down to earth and accessible tale.

Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For more 1950's Irish nostalgia try Bernard P Morgan's Memories of the Rare Old Times: through the Eyes of a Dubliner. Alternatively try a slice of northern family life with Alan Bennett A Life like Other People's.

Buy I'll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy I'll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan at Amazon.co.uk.



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