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Copeland’s Pick and Mix: One MLA’s Guide to Reading

The following article was produced by Dr Fran Barlet for a new series published by UTV on the reading habits of the Northern Ireland MLAs. On April 11th 2012, it was the turn of East Belfast MLA, Michael Copeland.

This week, I confess to being crushed. I was hoping against hope that Michael Copeland MLA would be an avid Enid Blyton fan, just like our previous readers… I had this fantasy that Brer Rabbit was hopping through the fields of every one of our politicians’ imaginary worlds. Not so. This week’s contributor remembers reading books full of images, but not the tiniest bunny in sight… Sigh!

Born, bred and educated in Castlereagh, reading kept a young Michael entertained. Loyal to his roots, Michael still lives in and represents the district for the UUP in the Assembly. “I was brought up in the days of Sunday comics, The Hostspur and The Victor among them; reading was central to understanding the world to a greater degree than it is now. (It) was the done thing. Television, radio and computers had not at that stage established their current dominance. (…).”

Interestingly, Michael pinpoints the start of his love story with books during his school days: full marks to his English teacher, Mr Fieldhouse, for kick-starting the (excellent) habit of a lifetime.

Since then, he has been a voracious reader, in the category of those who read more than one book at a time, late at night on work days and constantly during the holidays. Michael reads a few paper pages at a time and switches reads regularly. Each of his books has a personal significance as it has come wrapped up as a thoughtful present from a loved one. You’ve guessed it, Michael doesn’t do e-books.

This week, Michael’s trio of literary delights span Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Peter Snow’s To War with Wellington – From the Peninsula to Waterloo, and Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave, Two Men’s War in Ireland.

Similarly to last week’s reader, Michael’s picks seem to focus on history, war and conflict resolution through the shaking up of government structures.

In The Rights of Man, Paine makes a compelling argument in favour of the French Revolution as the only way to eradicate a failed government that did not safeguard the interests and rights of its people. Hereditary governments are described as a nonsense and the “fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”

From 1789′s French Revolution, Michael fast forwards a few years to the early 19th century Napoleonic Wars with Peter Snow’s diaries of Wellington’s soldiers. History Today describes how “Peter Snow explores the Peninsular Wars and the Battle of Waterloo by paying particular attention to the men who served under Wellington. He has scoured the many accounts by soldiers and weaves them impeccably into a wider narrative. We read about actors, shepherds and ploughboys as well as the sons of landowners and earls, stumbling and fighting their way through Portugal, Spain and France. (…) Snow keeps his quotations short and produces a splendidly concise and fast-paced narrative. (…) Rich with colour and pathos, written with wit and grace, this is marvellous history.”

Michael’s quote of the week is extracted from Snow’s To War with Wellington, in the form of an exchange between Lord Uxbridge and the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo:

Lord Uxbridge: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”

The Duke of Wellington: “By God, sir, so you have!”

Whilst our previous readers enjoyed a variety of literary themes, they have all shown a passion for Northern Ireland’s history. Michael is no exception. His third pick of the week, Moloney’s Voices from the Grave, features interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ervine: “This candid analysis of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the eyes of two men of violence, is full of revelations…The memories of both men are vivid, gossipy and informed by an intense moral passion” (Daily Express).

It will be no surprise to you then that Michael’s personal favourite reads were picked with a toss of the war-and-politics two-sided coin.

Heads: war. Michael’s favourite book is Guy Sajer’s Forgotten Soldier, a poignant account of war on the Eastern Front through the eyes of a teenage German soldier, fighting for survival against the Russian army through biting cold, crippling hunger and teeth-shattering fear. Michael regularly returns to this book which he says “portrays the senselessness of all wars, even just wars”.

Tails: politics. The book that has most influenced Michael’s political career is John Colville’s Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 “because it gives an insight into the behind-the-scene activity of momentous times in human history.” Colville’s diaries recount 16 years of service under three prime ministers, concentrating on his time as Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary; they uncover the intimate side of government in times of war and peace and give a unique perspective on one of the UK’s most famous leaders.

Personal non-fictional accounts in the forms of diaries, testimonies, and interviews are a common thread in Michael’s reading pattern. What it says about him is up to your interpretation but I think it shows an empathetic nature and a need for direct communication without go-betweens. There is also evidence of this in the way he works and interacts with his constituents. Michael has a very developed social media set up. He has a Twitter feed, a dedicated website, and has even developed the concept of a Skype clinic for those who cannot come to him in person. His Facebook page is a vibrant hub of debates and exchanges where he directly replies to his constituents’ questions and comments.

What struck me most when writing this piece is that Michael is a ‘multi-book reader’: “I have an unsettled nature. I bore easily so I can be reading up to 3 or 4 books at any given time.” I find this ability to tune in and out of a story fascinating. I can only read one book at a time. To enjoy it, I need to completely immerse myself in the story to the point that I’ll fight against sleep to hang on to how I’m feeling to the very last second. Kundera’s Farewell Waltz had that effect on me. The story is so gripping you just can’t leave the characters to their own devices. You feel compelled to walk them to the end of the road.

Invariably, if I have loved a book then I will read everything by the same author to try and get back that feeling of being someone else, somewhere else. This is how I have ended up with Rankin and Kundera’s complete works sitting on my bookshelf.

On the upside, I discovered the story of the Prague Spring with Kundera and could probably draw a roadmap of Edinborough down to the last set of lights thanks to Rebus.

On the downside, concentrating on specific authors means that I am probably missing on some great reads.

For the original source: http://www.u.tv/blogs/Fran-Barlet/Copelands-Pick-and-Mix/db95a9c9-ad25-429d-99d5-f72690a89682

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