I have a long connection with Janice Galloway, author of The Trick is to Keep Breathing the Scottish Text for Higher English, even though she doesn’t know it. At a book reading twenty years ago I asked her a stupid question which she dealt with very graciously and since then I have attended several readings, not asking any questions, but just admiring her as a writer and person.
I’d been meaning to read the first part of her autobiography This is not about me since its publication and was shocked to find out when I went to buy it that it has been in print for six years! It does not seem so long ago that she was promoting it at literary festivals! Time goes too quickly. The last reading I attended she said she was fifty and now she’ll be fifty-seven. It having been so many years, a certain amount of hopeful anticipation existed as I started to read a book which had been latent in my subconscious for so long.
It is a brilliant book. Particularly since it captures for me the viewpoint of a child so extraordinarily well. So well, that I actually found it very, very moving. The struggles of a young child born into difficult circumstances is recounted in episodes of great detail laden with emotion and meaning. The development of the child is encased in authorial explanation providing a context of family relations, social relations and institutional relations which add to the meaning.
What I love about the book is its honesty about the ordinary. The rich lives of an ordinary family are displayed on the page. Of course, when I use the word rich, I don’t meant it to be confused with creativity or connected with happiness; but instead the accumulation of needs, desires, emotions, beliefs and opinions that make up ordinary life. Disappointment, failure, frustration, resentment and pettiness are more the norm than uplifting happiness, joy or altruistic generosity. The bitter family in-fighting of a west coast family would be familiar to many, not just those in the Clyde valley. Yet there is love and care and hope.
Throughout the book there is a quiet child experiencing life, powerless and buffeted by its vicissitudes, yet ever so slowly, with only a little love and encouragement, on the way to growth and discovering her voice. A child that shows penetrative awareness, if not always fully understanding the behaviour of the adults around her, dimly aware of the barrier that precludes any questioning or the giving of an explanation. When reading this, a reader cannot help but reflect on their own life and their own feelings when confronted with the strange ways of the adult world. The feelings of a child are all too often overlooked as adults struggle to cope with their own needs and fears: we tend to think that children are infinitely adaptable and that they just accept change. However, Janice Galloway describes particular events powerfully and comments on the impact these events can had on her as a child and how it lasted for years to come. At the time, for the adults involved, they barely merited notice. Sadly, it shows a world, beyond the writer’s own circumstances, where there is too little understanding of children, they are taken for granted too much and there is too little love for them.
The powerful rendition of a child’s consciousness is why I think that every parent and every educator should read this book (and the second part). In fact…every adult! As adults we can be quick to forget how the world appeared to us as children and we can be quick to make assumptions about children that are often good for us, or the institution we are part of, yet incorrect and stifling for them to live within the confines of. Children know more about what is good for them than they are given credit and can understand more than we think. This book, in its accurate portrayal, is an important reminder of this fact.