On the top shelf of my biggest set of bookshelves, a wall of books I used to great effect as a performative Zoom background during the Great Unpleasantness, is a row of encyclopedias that remind me in uncertain or troubling times of who I am and where I came from.
They are uniformly brown and blue on the spine, and so I think of them as brainy soldiers standing sentry over the debris of family life: the table strewn with this morning’s breakfast things, somebody’s puffa jacket slung over a chair, a child’s self-portrait with half-finished eyes discarded on the floor.
My daughters and I will spend hours with the encyclopedias, looking up world capitals or the periodic table. Oh, sorry, no, that’s just a dream I had once
“See those books?” I sometimes tell my teenage daughters, pointing up at the set of Encyclopedia Britannica. “That was our internet back in the day.” My daughters, ears pricked, alert and intrigued, immediately throw down their phones while I clamber on a chair to reach up and dust off the weighty volumes.
We’ll spend hours with them then, laying the brainy brown and blue soldiers out on the kitchen table, looking up the capitals of countries and elements on the periodic table or simply marveling at the florid yet informative description of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Oh, sorry, no, that’s just a dream I had once. In reality they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, and you used quills instead of pens and had an outside toilet and couldn’t fast-forward the ads on the telly, which was” – cue minutes of hysterical laughter – “black- and-white,” and go back to watching a young woman on TikTok who can imitate 25 animal sounds in 60 seconds. Fair play to her.
My mother bought the set of encyclopedias on the never-never in the 1970s. I am deeply fond of that phrase “the never-never”. For younger readers, it comes from England, and it’s used to describe purchases that are paid for in small installments, usually over several years. The payment system was called the never-never because when it was coined it was thought that the purchaser was paying over such a long time period, and the interest was so high, that they would probably never actually own the item outright. I appreciate the earthy pessimism of it. And I like the idea of a never-never land, where nothing is ever-ever paid off.
My childhood memories are hazy before the age of eight, but I have a vivid mental image of the night those books came into our house. I was six or maybe seven. I remember a tall man in a dark suit in the front room on the sofa with my mother, explaining how these gorgeous-smelling leather-bound books, which he produced from a large briefcase, would transform our lives. They did, and for years they were consulted for every school project or Mastermind question you wanted to verify or just if you found yourself up late with nothing much on the TV. They came with their own bookshelves – and I don’t really know how, when my mother sold the house, they eventually ended up in mine.
I didn’t see the opening ceremony, because the World Cup is being boycotted in this house by order of me. There’s the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, not to mention the deaths of 6,000 or more migrant workers since it was awarded the tournament
I bought something recently on the never-never myself. It was a 65-inch TV. I know. Like it was 2003 and we were in the middle of the Celtic Tiger. We knew it was big, but it was only when the two men – not in suits, no briefcases to be seen – came to deliver the TV that I realized how big it was. Like, massive. Too big for most of the rooms in our modest terraced house.
Mysteriously, the arrival of the TV coincided not only with the build-up to The Late Late Toy Show but also with the start of the World Cup, which in case you hadn’t heard is being held in that famous footballing nation Qatar. I didn’t see the opening ceremony, because the World Cup is being boycotted in this house by order of me. There’s the fact that homosexuality is illegal in that country, not to mention the deaths of an estimated 6,000 or more migrant workers in Qatar – disputed by the Qatari Supreme Committee – since the country was awarded the World Cup.
Then there are the many ways in which women’s rights are curtailed there.
In March last year, Human Rights Watch published a 94-page report, called Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man, which analyzed official male guardianship rules and practices. It found the lives of women and their rights are severely curtailed by the guardianship laws in Qatar. Researchers for Human Rights Watch found that women had to get permission from male guardians – fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands – to exercise many basic rights, including marrying and studying abroad. The study also revealed that women cannot be primary carers of their children, even if the father of the children has died or if they are divorced. If there was no male relative to act as guardian of the children, the role of guardian falls to the government.
My mother bought the encyclopedias as an investment in our education, and the big TV does have the National Geographic channel, so there are parallels
I told my brother about my Qatar World Cup boycott, and he said he was deeply skeptical that the committed soccer fan in my house would not secretly be watching some of the matches on the giant television. He cited England vs Wales as particularly irresistible. I’d like to think it will be never-never for the World Cup under this roof, but, more realistically, it’s probably more like never-never when I’m in the house to witness it.
My mother bought the encyclopedias as an investment in our education, and the big TV does have the National Geographic channel, so there are parallels. I went looking on the actual internet to see how much the set of books would have cost back then, and it was probably a few hundred of your old Irish pounds. My mother was paying them off on the never-never, though, tiny payments over years. Then, when I was eight, my father died by suicide. Because of the never-never terms and conditions, when my dad died the entire set was paid for overnight. I look at the brainy soldiers occupying the top shelf and think of them as the books gifted to us by my father. Back when the never-never became the now-now.