Footfalls of Memory

‘To be alone with a book was one of the most precious gifts I received during those long solitary years ... solitary confinement taught me anew the delight and value of books’ – Terry Waite.

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


  1. Great post Anthony and it reminds me of being introduced to books, that were not part of the christian bro Barrack st,forced reading,though later the works of Shakespeare and others did become interesting,my thirst for the written word came through a man whom I found to be like a sage whose name was Malachy Scott he was the shears operator (a huge hydraulic guillotine) in Eastwoods Scrapyard as an apprentice engineer in the 60,s I would be given the job of changing hoses or seals on this machine,now a job that would take maybe an hour would have been stretched over two days as I sat in the control room with a commanding view overlooking the whole yard we would discuss Catcher in the rye by J D Salinger,or Hellers Catch 22,a smart arse kid was soon grounded by the knowledge of this wise and interesting man,even in the most unusual of places as you rightly point out a cara the book can not only be educational but an escape and an insight into other worlds and experiences that some of us could only ever dream of.

  2. AM-

    Dont know what its like for bullys to with-hold books of me for long periods of time-hope i never find out-

    " The bible did save soles "

    Thats a shoe in of a yarn-

    The Brothers Karamazov looks an interisting read-might look it up-

    Nearly finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell- seen the film advertised [ 3 hours long ] and a few reviews said it was somewhat complicated so i checked out the book first-love it-i look forward to the DVD of the film comming out-

  3. I really enjoyed reading this Anthony. It brought to mind Thomas Clarke's "Glimpse of an Irish Felon's Prison Life" which has a very humorous story involving newspapers in a situation where if you even glanced at one you'd get four days bread and water.

    I expect you have read "An Evil Cradling" but if you haven't yet read "Between Extremes" by Brian Keenan and John McCarthy I would fervently recommend it. Dreaming of travelling though Peru and Chile once released and talking over their plans helped keep the two hostages sane. This book is the story of the actual trip.

  4. Thanks to all for the comments,


    Shando raved and raved to me in the jail about Cathcher in the Rye so I gave in and read it. It didn't hit the spot. Catch 22 was always around but for some reason I never picked it up.


    the bible saves soles - somebody picked up on it!! Try Jussi Adler Olsen when you have time. Brilliant. As good as Stieg Larsson and I never thought I would say that.


    I have not read either. I see them week in week out as I do the second hand book shops. Seen them today and yesterday as well. But as usual came home with ten others! Two of them by Studs Terkel. Rare that I see his work in shops. 15 bought this week. I need to curb the addiction big time.

  5. AM- Those two of Brian Keenan's are well worth the read. I love Catch 22 and I have also read Catcher in the Rye, I didn't enjoy it that much but I always put it down to reading it at a young age. I still have it and plan to re-read. There lies the litmus test.

    My all time favourites are Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo and Last of the Mohicans. They pass the test of time for a reason I suppose. I have The Brothers Karamazov on my shelf behind me. It's another on my to-read list.

    Michael Henry, How did you find the new language in Cloud Atlas? It took me a while to get into and the next 'ordinary' book I read afterwards seemed strange by comparison.

  6. Michael Henry- What I meant was, my brain was so used to reading a bizarre language that when I read plain English directly afterwards it took a while to re-configure my understanding.

    'Black Swan Green' also by David Mitchell isn't bad but I preferred Cloud Atlas perhaps because it is unique in it's style and it's strange power of description.

  7. Mackers,

    Did you never read porn up in the blocks? Some DH laurence perhaps? or if one had an eye for classic erotica, Anis Nin or Henry Miller? I recomend The Dirty Havana Trilogy, it shows the darker side of cuba and nice and raunchy as well. A sprinkling of Lord Byron perhaps?

    Spill the beans big lad ;)
    if its good enough for Behan and Wilde its good enough for the provies lol

  8. Emmett,

    we used the porn to stand on in the winter during the blanket. It was filled with tales of murder and rape but I never read it.

    We catholics would never read porn!

    While there I read Lady Chatterly's Lover, saw the Henry Miller film (Henry & June I think it was called, but never read Anais Nin.

    There was porn aplenty and the boys used to call it the Connolly books. It started out as somebody asking across the wings 'have you any of Connolly's thoughts on women?' And was thereafter abbreviated to Connolly books.

    In 1977 while in the cages a mild porn film got shown on reel by the screws as part of their fortnightly film schedule. The teenagers there like myself loved it but there were quite a few complaints after from the more pious.

    But that's jail for you.

  9. Simon-

    During the first chapter of Cloud Atlas a collins dictionary was of no use-but i found it a great book from the 2nd chapter on-then i re-read the start again-the interviewees with Sonmi-451 will stick with me for a long time in the same way that the Sven Hassel books have stuck with me-loved it-


    " As good as Stieg Larsson "

    Thats a bold statement-but i will give it a go in the future- a book caught my eye in tescos yesterday-Zoo-by James Patterson-3 pound something-i should be starting it tomorrow-

  10. Anthony ,Simon a chairde, Catcher In The Rye seems to be that sort of book .you either love it or loathe it. its 40 plus years since I read it might be a good time for a revisit something I rarely do in relation to books. Catch 22 sticks in my mind and needs no revisit, wasnt the hit tv series MASH based losely on that book,still tempted after much persuasion to have a go at Stieg Larsson, maybe with the warmer weather coming I can spend a day drifting on Lough Melvin reading one,with a few glasses of plum poteen,one book from my earliest memories that sticks out in my mind is My Testimony by Anatoly Marchenko,a powerful account of his incarceration in Soviet labour camps.

  11. AM,
    Great post that. I understand the gift of reading and the companionship it brings. Books bring people, places and things in which in every other life you would be denied. Sometimes thank Christ. I cannot feel enough pain for you going through 3 years without a book in that cell and the conditions. I remember reading Brian Keenans book on captivity and being chained to a radiator in Beruit and thought I would have cracked.

    I frequent the second hand books myself, until I had a collection to be truly proud off. I made the extremely hard "death like" decision to give them back to the bookshop in which I bought them, they were taken up far to much space sitting there on my shelf perhaps never to be read again. It also had this karma effect of it being good enough for me to find the books there, therefore in time I am sure I will another range of stock. I must have been watching my name is Earl or something.

    Anyway, another conclusion was I wanted to return them to the book shop and let go officially as in the past I had become a personal library to friends and lent out books with caution, mind that in due course you would have needed "Dog the bounty hunter" to get them back. Materialist bastards. LOL

    I seem to hold onto the newer books, especially on the historical dimension and the best picks, as I continuously find myself picking them up and cross referencing and refreshing myself with the information from time to time to decode everyday life through another authors eyes.

    There is a few books mentioned here, I will give a spin, when I cast my rod again. I enjoyed the reference to "Connollys thoughts on women" that was hilariously funny. lol

  12. Thanks for clearing that up mackers :) and since you have been a good soul with your honest disclosure you get a doggie biscuit, which is, Dermot Healy's Goats Song; a book which, if you have not yet read, you must.

    I seldom divulge the names of my secret literary gems but for you I have made an exception ;)

  13. Emmett,

    I love book recommendations and like to know what people are currently reading. I have marked this one down. Time is always the problem. John McGuffin, before he died, told Eamonn McCann that he had so many good books to get through but still there were bastards writing more.

  14. Marty- There was a film based on Catch-22 of the same name. It isn't great. The book is fabulous- hilarious.

    M*A*S*H* the film and TV series was based on the book of the same name. I read M*A*S*H* a few years back. It isn't bad but nowhere near as good as Catch-22.

  15. Simon,

    I will pick the two Beirut ones up. I see them all the time. I think if I come in with another book I will get a divorce. My wife said it is just an addiction- I am a collector of books but not a reader!

    If I were to pick a favourite novel it would probably be one I read in 1977 in the jail during my trial: The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders. A non fiction one would be Guerrillas and Generals by Paul Lewis. But I could tell you something different next week so ....

  16. AM,

    It's an addiction of sorts. I loved the John McGuffin quote. I may have a wide choice of books to read but I'll never read them all.

    My favourite non-fiction book is "Small is Beautiful" by Dr. E.F. Schumacher and has been for over 20 years. "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is a very close second.

    I read Catcher in the Rye when I was 18 but maybe it was a little sophisticated for my years. I am going to give it another try.

  17. Simon,

    thirty odd years since I read Bury My Heart...

    Strangely enough a book that stands out in my mind as one that gave me immense reading enjoyment was Germany's Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. He is a Zionist, the book had serious issues of bias
    and was criticised by some jewish writers. But it was a great read. Another was King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. Just finished The Flawed Architect by Jussi Hanhimaki last night which was good but had a disappointing conclusion. There is so much to choose from. I recall being in the Crum at 16 and was so disappointed by the limited range of books on the wing library. Lots of Westerns that I had little inclination to read. But two that I did manage to get then were Borstal Boy and Papillon: both jail related! By 17 and in Magilligan I became immersed in Sven Hassel!! Read HH Kirst's 20th of July then. Great story.

  18. I read Borstal Boy and Papillon at around the same age as they were in my family's book collection. Have you read their follow-ups: "Confessions of an Irish Rebel" and "Banco".

    I have a terrible habit of reading all the books of an author I like but particularly sequels. I couldn't put down Spike Milligan's War Memoirs which I read after I left school. They consist of seven or eight very funny, interesting and addictive books but I was left wondering about a certain love of his life whose story was only completed 10 or 15 years later in a book called "The Family Album of Spike Milligan".

  19. Simon loved Milligan he took his humor to his gravestone, I loved Papillon,and was disappointed to read later that Henri Charriére was not all he had promoted himself to be ,I suppose its a case of hero,s and feet of clay here,Wounded Knee is a must read,I agree with your comment about following a particular author I have read all of Joseph Wambaughs books,the Choirboys being my favourite. Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain which Anthony reviewed a while ago is a book which like Wounded Knee is also a must read..

  20. Read Catch 22 myself a while back-i am sure it never went down well with those who have armed themslves
    to the teeth in the states-but there is some difference in flying 20+ missions in world war 2 and owning a AK in your back yard-to publish that book in the 50s with the internal carry on going on in America took guts-[everyone not liked was called a commie ]

    I remember an Ard Fheis in Dublin-think it was the 98 one and there was a horse running that day called
    Papillon-most had a flutter on it and it won-the bookies paid for the drinks that night-great book also-

  21. Marty- I have "Cruel Britannia". I may not get to read all the books I own but that is one near the top of my reading list.

    AM- Brian Keenan's "An Evil Cradling" and his and John McCarthy's "Between Extremes" are well worth it particularly as you say they can be found often in charity and second-hand bookstores. Nonetheless I loved them so much I hunted down a signed first edition of each title. Not that they're worth anything in money terms just nice to have.