Peter Pan Nearly Grounded

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

A hand closed on my arm with a grip of steel.

'Is that your bag, sir?' The security officer pointed to my briefcase as it rolled innocently from the mouth of the X-ray machine at Dublin Airport. That was in September. Michael O'Brien of The O'Brien Press, my wife Jennifer and I were on our way to the Gothenburg Book Fair. Katie's War, my first book (Katie's Krig in Swedish), had just won iBBY Sweden's new 'Peter Pan Prize'. Just now, however, I had other things on my mind. I leaned forward. Yes, the bag was mine. I looked up. There on the screen above that infernal machine was a portrait of my briefcase. It was like one of those aboriginal paintings that shows not only the animal, but also its insides; my bag's innermost parts were exposed. And there, in the blue sheen, floated an unmistakeable dagger.

I turned to my companions for support. Michael O'Brien looked as I suppose any publisher would look, watching his author being arrested on the first day of their trip. Jennifer, on the other hand, had her eyes rolled to heaven, the 'thinks' bubble above her head saying, 'Dear God, what has the eejit done now!' By this time the security officer's grip had reduced the bone in my arm to a handful of matchstick. He stepped back, as if preparing himself for a sudden attack, while I fumbled with catches and gabbled. I tried to explain that the dagger was just a paper knife that I used as a prop when talking to people about my book.

'You see, Officer,' (always call someone who is arresting you 'Officer'), 'the handle is just a rifle cartridge from First World War days. Look, there's the bullet!' The atmosphere, already icy, plunged towards absolute zero. Desperately I flexed the copper blade. 'You see, Officer, it's really only a paper knife.'
I shouldn't tell you how I got through security and onto the plane -- with the paper knife -- in case a real bandit learns my trick, but what you do is to coil up the blade of your dagger until it's no longer a threat to anyone, not even an envelope.

PETER PAN LANDS

Gothenburg is a former shipbuilding city on the west coast of Sweden. If you didn't realise that Sweden has a west coast, look at a map. There is Gothenburg, 'twixt Sweden's nether tip and Norway's capital, Oslo. It is here that the Gothenburg International Book Fair is held. In two vast halls, over 800 exhibitors set up their stalls. In the mornings people wear suits, are brisk, and carry briefcases. Stands are examined and deals are done. In the afternoons the aisles fill as 14,000 book-hungry Swedes drift, absorbed, between the stands. Antiquarian books, Taiwanese translations and recently liberated books from Latvia and Estonia: here you will find all sorts of books. Trembling authors hold microphones and read to polite circles of supporters. Wizards hover -- we must be near the Harry Potter stand -- and one startled Irish author picks up a book-club catalogue and finds Katies Krig as the centre spread.

There are lecture theatres, and nearly 300 authors and speakers. It was here, dragged reluctantly from wall-to-wall hospitality, that I was interviewed by fair-haired Ulla (all Swedes speak perfect English). She explained how the Peter Pan Prize is awarded for a children's book, translated into Swedish, describing another country's way of life. Katie's War is about a young girl whose father returns shell-shocked from the First World War. Katie nurses him back to normality, but his hatred of war still threatens to tip him back into madness. When civil war breaks out, she is pulled three ways: to side with Kieran, a nice Free State soldier she has met, or with her Republican brother Seamus, or to side with Father and his hatred of war.

Ulla was interested in the history, as she felt it helped Swedish people to understand the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland, but she was also interested in the countryside where the story happens. I explained how, when I was working as a geologist in the slate quarries near Killaloe, I realised what a good place for an adventure it would be -- full of dark holes and piles of toppling slates. She asked me how I knew what Katie's home would have been like back in 1922. So I told her how I had grown up during the war on a farm in Sligo, where there was no electricity and no fuel available for tractors. Horses did all the work and I went to bed by candlelight. Ulla wanted to know about the goats that used to warn the quarry men if the loose slates were about to fall on top of them. I told her how I used lots of real incidents to make parts of the story.

The prize-giving followed, and I now have a lovely certificate on my wall, with an original drawing on it by Eva Eriksson, one of Sweden's famous illustrators.

THE SCENT OF CINNAMON

The Book Fair was over but I wanted to visit Oslo in Norway, to thank people who had helped me with my second book, The Cinnamon Tree; we decided to go there by train.

Two years ago I got so angry about people using landmines -- buried bombs that explode when people step on them -- that I wanted to write a book about them. I tried and I tried but couldn't get started. In the end I said, 'I'll just have to go and see for myself!' I flew out to Angola, which is on the west coast of Africa. Here, Norwegian People's Aid took me to a big hospital where landmine victims go to be fitted with artificial legs. I noticed that most of them were women. The Norwegians showed me how they hunt for landmines, using tank-like machines, and even dogs. Mostly, however, they work on hands and knees, listening for the shriek that comes from their mine detectors when there is a mine below.

It was here that my ideas for The Cinnamon Tree began to grow. I was shown a landmine still stuck in the ground beneath a tree. When the mine was made safe, the deminer broke off a piece of bark from the tree and gave it to me to smell: cinnamon! It was then that I started to hear, in my mind, the voice of Yola's little cousin Gabbin calling her: 'Yola! Yola!' and the story began.

The idea of a story about a landmine victim may seem terrible, but Yola is no victim. In the end, as I had her waiting to start on her final mission, to save her little cousin, I felt that it was she who was writing the story, not me. I hope you like her.

NOT AGAIN!

Having thanked Norwegian People's Aid, it was time for sightseeing. My demining friend, Per, had a small present for me; I put it away without a thought. We saw the Kon-Tiki, the log raft on which Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific, and Viking ships like those that raided Ireland and brought the Norsemen who built our first cities, including Dublin and Wexford. Then we flew home.

Exhausted we waited and waited for my suitcase to appear on the carousel at Dublin airport.
'At least you didn't get caught with that dagger of yours this time,' Jennifer observed.
'No!' Was there something in my voice? She was staring at me, with resigned tolerance.
'Go on! Tell me. What have you got in your suitcase this time?'
'A landmine.' I whispered. 'Per gave it me.'
Jennifer sank on to our empty trolley. 'I'm waiting,' she said.
'For the case?'
'No,' she said with a sigh. 'For the controlled explosion.'

Book:
Contributor/Speaker:
Aubrey Flegg