Footfalls of Memory
According to what I scrawled on the inside cover, I bought his book back in 1998 in a second hand bookshop somewhere in Belfast, more to have than to read other than at some point in the distant future.
When the Olympics were opening in London last year, and my wife and kids wanted to watch the opening ceremony, the razzmatazz and noise that goes with it was more than my ageing listeners could assimilate without popping a drum so I headed off to the spare room – the snob might say ‘retired to the reading room.’ Having looked casually over the phalanx of books there this one sort of volunteered itself. It looked easy enough to get through without any great challenge, and sure if the concentration was not in top gear it would hardly matter. I had 150 pages done to death by the time I came down to join the rest of the brood engrossed in their Olympics viewing.
Footfalls of Memory is not great from the point of view of its author’s wider experiences in Beirut where he had been a hostage for 1763 days. Yet it was so easy to identify with because of his passion for books and how he referred to the fact that books were a pleasure he missed almost as much as any other while in captivity. For the first year he was left bookless. Anyone that has undergone Britain’s 'humane and enlightened prison regime', where those that couldn’t read locked up those that could, knows the feeling. On the orders of the NIO, the H-Blocks prison staff denied protesting prisoners any reading material. I went three years without handling a real book. The bible was in the cell but that was for standing on in the cold winter months when the chill, once it had penetrated the soles of our feet seemed to rise exponentially in most aggressive fashion. I suppose it could be said that the bible did save soles.
On the blanket sleep did not spare the avid reader the gnawing of deprivation. In one part Waite dreamed about reaching for a book only to have his leg shackle wrench him from his sleep. His sense of let down was enormous. During the bookless protest I frequently dreamt about being in a library. The shelves were stocked but each time I would lift one out and eagerly opened the pages it was in German. I would try reading it only to be thwarted by the language barrier. That ‘sense of freedom’ referred to by the imprisoned author Jimmy Boyle was brought so close only to be snatched away. Even in sleep there was no escaping the combined grey mass of bleakness and boredom that sat heavily on the chest.
Waite also referred to his browsing through second hand bookshops in Cambridge. Any time I am in that renowned British University City myself and a friend make a point of doing the bookshops. There are many treasures to be found on the shelves, making the afternoon’s dander a rewarding experience. Usually, books bagged, we grab a pint in one of the locals and assess our separate finds. Last September we did Oxford and were not left disappointed. I picked up mint condition hardback copies of The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker and Long Shadows by Erna Parker, the latter in particular of great current relevance given its attempt to address ‘how countries manipulate historical memory in the aftermath of war or repression. ’
Waite writes about his capacity, shared with most human beings for self deception. There was little that I could identify with in terms of his religiosity. He read the Koran like I would never read the Bible. Solitary was never quite that bad. I could find a kindred spirit in John Bunyan who Waite quoted in respect of those who ‘make the exercise of their religion their pretence, to cover their wickedness.’
From the books he read in captivity I recognised Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle and Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, both of which I had read in a cell. But, in his words, ‘to receive a book by Dostoyevsky was a wonderful bonus,’ is an experience not to be passed off lightly. In 1982 my mother sent in The Brothers Karamazov, urging me to read it in a way that she recommended few others. I had the advantage over Waite in having both volumes. He had only the first.
Footfalls of Memory is perhaps not a book to love but rather one for book lovers. For those who have been there it is evocative of a dismal world without books, and the sense of loss that comes with being denied access to them: something that we might wish for our enemies and few others, and even then only in our most bitter of moments.
Terry Waite: Footfalls in Memory, 1995. Hodder and Stoughton: London. ISBN 0-340-63051-5