I Could Read the Sky

Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke

Constant is my attraction to books that offer a meandering reflection on life, landscape, and communities, particularly with a focus of Irish itinerancy, and therefore I Could Read the Sky has cemented itself as an instant, incomparable favourite. The narrator, in his twilight years, lies in bed in London and begins to see visions of his childhood in Ireland and from here the journey of a life of love, work, anguish, isolation and community is told.

Unbound have issued a beautiful new edition of this novel that was first published in 1997 and the marriage of Timothy O’Grady’s tender text and Steve Pyke’s hauntingly beautiful photography culminates in a book deserving of total immersion. In the preface John Berger says “I dare not go deeply into this book, for if I did, I would stay with it forever and I wouldn’t return” and this is a real danger, evidenced by how this book has hindered the reading of anything since as the portraits and lyrical prose filter into any spare moment’s thought. It is remarkable to think that this is fiction because the emotion and description of the harsh pain of labour and exclusion that Irish workers faced in England feels unmistakably real and it reflects similar stories found in John Healy’s memoir, The Grass Arena, and auto- fiction, The Metal Mountain. The narrative presents a lonely an isolated figure who has tried to sustain an identity that connected him to his home but as he now lies in his old age the vibrancy of life is distant and food for melancholy. The extent to which Irish men working in England suffered from isolation and xenophobic treatment on worksites is illuminated in the catalogue of Pyke’s photographs. Where the text speaks of one man, the photography displays whole communities. Where the text represents the voiceless, the photography reveals them in singular portraits and captures of congregation.

In the story there is a constant pattern of characters changing their names whenever they moved town for work and this only enhances an impression of the malleable self and the diminishing attachment to identity that is present throughout the book. This desire to be someone new could have been an attempt to chase something new or retreat from something past but either way it demonstrates a projection of understanding the self at both a singular and collective level within the novel.

In Pyke’s photography there is a particular focus on hands and eyes and they distil two of the more crucial elements of O’Grady’s writing, making and feeling. The hands that are photographed symbolise the tools of labour and the eyes reveal the range of emotions rife in the text, the pain and the love that fluctuates throughout the writing. O’Grady is keen to show that hands were not just used for manual labour; they were also used to create and maintain the strongest bond to home, music. The boyhood episodes are filled with the father playing the accordion and this is a skill that is then passed down to the next generation. As he grows up the narrator finds friendship through his ability to deliver memories by playing the Irish folk songs that looped in his compatriot’s head, and this is best demonstrated by the conviviality of the pub scenes. In Ulysses, Joyce imagines the piano as a coffin with a supernatural presence and in this story music haunts and it prompts a nostalgia that binds people together and people to landscapes. The echoes of childhood, of family and of home bounce around the walls of a pub in London.

The description of epic landscapes and the diminutive details of love are both mastered with a poetic lyricism and striking photography that are both incredibly affecting. Moments of cold and bleak living are contrasted with flashes of care and love, resulting in a mighty book that explores the details and intricacies of life in a format that exceeds the possibilities of text and photography alone.

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