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EPISODE 09: C.S. Lewis’s Childhood in Belfast
Learning about C.S. Lewis’s childhood in Belfast gives great insight to his books and later life. Sandy Smith has been providing tours of Belfast for over 20 years pointing extensively to key locations of Lewis’s life. In this interview, we hear about some of those locations and the ways Lewis has shaped Sandy’s faith.
C.S. Lewis and the Island of His Birth by Sandy Smith. | cslewis.com
Articles by Sandy Smith:
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman. On our podcast, we seek to promote discipleship of the heart and mind. And today my conversation partner is Sandy Smith, who leads tours around Belfast about C.S. Lewis and brings a wealth of knowledge about Lewis and the connection to our Christian faith. Sandy, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you. It's good to be on with you.
Sandy's Appreciation about C.S Lewis
Let me tell our listeners just a little bit about Sandy. I first met Sandy on our C.S. Lewis Institute study tour of Belfast and Oxford. I immediately grabbed a hold of his book, C.S. Lewis and the Island of his Birth: The Places, the Stories, the Inspiration, and I have learned so much from Sandy. Let me just tell you, Sandy had a career in the world of engineering and academia. He's a graduate of Queen's University of Belfast. He also got a PhD in engineering. He was sort of in industry for a while, being a consultant. He was in academia for a while as a lecturer at the University of Ulster. Then, he worked for the Department of Education there in Northern Ireland and also helped out with a lot of teacher training, and then also served for a number of years with government. So he has had his hand in a whole bunch of different directions.
But for the past 20 years or so, he has helped people in Belfast, the place where C.S. Lewis was born, grow in appreciation for their hometown hero. And he has led a number of tours. And, Sandy, I'm just delighted to have you on the podcast. Tell us, what are some of the things that you've grown to appreciate about C.S. Lewis in these 20 years of leading tours?
Well, yes, that's an interesting question to start with, Randy, and whenever I commenced these tours, it was really very serendipitous, almost, because, after Norma and I were married, with our family, we went to live on the road that C.S. Lewis spent his boyhood on in Belfast. That was Circular Road in Belfast. And during that time, I would have colleagues from the university around with us for dinner of an evening. And from time to time, the conversation would turn to things of interest e and invariably it ended up with C.S. Lewis. And once or twice e before dinner was actually ready, I would have said to folk, “Would you like to take a walk up the road to see the house where the Lewis family lived?” And we simply walked up before dinner. I showed them the house, we walked back, and we had dinner and a bit of conversation.
And a few of them were sort of more interested. They were intrigued to discover that someone with an international reputation lived so close to me and that I had an interest in this. And when others come around to us, they would say, “Why don't you take the folk up and show them the house?” And I would say, “Well, yes. If we've got a few more minutes, actually, I could take you over and show you the house where he was born as well. That's a different location.” And then a couple of folks were very interested, and they said, “Did he spend much time here?” I said, “Look, would you like to come over some evening, and I’ll show you where he was born. I’ll show you the school that he went to. I’ll show you his home. I’ll show you the church that his family went to.” They thought that would be great.
So I kind of did that just for a few friends. And then I got phone calls a few times, and folks said, “You know, we have someone coming to stay with us. And they've read a few books by C.S. Lewis, and we told them about what you did with us. Could you organize like an hour and a half for these folks?”
So I started to do that, and that kind of just grew, and eventually we had some discussions with folks here in Belfast who were like minded to myself. And we spoke to our tourist board and said, “You know, we think we've got the makings of a nice little literary tour that just might be of interest to some of your overseas visitors. And, from there, what happened eventually was they said to me, “Could you ever just give us the locations in Belfast that are associated with Lewis and his family?” So I said, “Yeah, I can do that without difficulty.” So I listed them, give them the list, and they came back and they said to me, “You wouldn't ever write us a little script that we could kind of give to a guide?” And I said, “Yes, that is not a difficulty.” So I drafted them a script, and again, they took the script very graciously. They came back and they said to me, “You know, the script is great. No criticisms or problem with the script. Just one thing, there's an awful lot of references to the literature, and if a guide were asked questions that are one side of the script, they might be a bit nonplussed.”
And I said, “Look, guys. I’m sorry, there's no shortcut to reading. Whoever you get to do this for you is going to have to read.” They said to me, “Look, we're going to launch this on either side of the films. This is the 2005 Media Films. They said, “You wouldn't do a couple of these for us just on either side of the film launch, and we’ll see how it goes. And after that, we maybe kind of get someone who can be trained up to do it.”
And so I did it. And I’ve got to tell you that, in doing this, I had, number one, a preconceived notion as to the kind of people who would come on the tour. I thought they would all be more or less clones of myself with some kind of interest in C.S. Lewis and his work and his life. And what I discovered was there was such a spectrum of people. During the tour, I would ask people, “Why did you choose to come on the tour? And how did you hear about it?” And they would say things like, “I came on this tour because I never heard of C.S. Lewis.” Oh, my goodness! Wow! And some people would have said—we ran these tours on a Saturday and Sunday across the weekends before the launch of the films. And one guy with a very strong English accent said to me, “I came because there was nothing else to do in Belfast on Sunday morning.”
You were the best show in town!
I was that show. And then other people—this will amaze you and those who listen. But I remember distinctly saying to one lady, “How did you hear about the tour?” And she said, “Well, I heard about it just in our local—now, when she says local, she means actually even local to Belfast, a paper that was published in one part of Belfast that isn't published, really, or circulated in another. And she said, “I've spent all my life living in West Belfast, and I have never been to East Belfast.”
Isn't that something?
“And I wanted to come on the tour.” So one lady told me she simply wanted to come out because her eight-year-old daughter had been given a little project to do in school, and they were reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and she said, “I thought I would help my daughter with her schoolwork, her project.” And I thought, “Hey, there's a wide range of people,” and of course, I don't want to give you any more detail on that, but that's the kind of background and how this emerged, and the folks locally who started coming on it.
And then, of course, more recently, it has now attracted almost a different kind of—still with some locals, but an international audience of folk coming for very specific purposes, with very specific objectives. And I'm happy, if you're interested, to tell you a little bit about them.
Oh, yes. But let me first say, I remember… Well, I've gone now on the tours a couple of times, and then there was one afternoon that you showed me around another part of Belfast where our tour didn't cover. And you told me that you were seeing your tours as this wonderful opportunity for what I would label as pre-evangelism. Because a whole lot of non-Christians, if they've heard a little bit about C.S. Lewis, or they read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, but they haven't heard the gospel or they haven't embraced the gospel. And your tours, like C.S. Lewis's books, certainly his Narnia books, they capture the imagination and they make people want to then read more. And hopefully some of them will read Mere Christianity, which is so much more pointed and obviously evangelistic.
So I find this so delightful that what started as almost like, I don't know, a hobby or an interest of yours developed into a kind of a side business, but it has kingdom purposes, it has evangelistic fruit for some people, and I just think that's just really great.
I share your enthusiasm for this, and really I enjoyed that aspect of it really thoroughly, because when I was doing these things, really the folk who were kicking them off was our tourist board. So it was something that really didn't have any kind of church connection. And I'm just a guy on a coach with an anorak on, and I'm standing talking to people because they want to be there!
They chose to purchase a ticket-
Yeah, that's right!
… to come on this. I wasn't inviting them along to something that I was running or propagating or desperately keen for them to… I mean, I was keen for them to come, but they were coming and they were responding to newspaper adverts. They were thinking, “This is something that would brighten up an occasional winter Saturday afternoon in Belfast.” And they came willingly. We were on a coach, and I had more or less a captive audience for anything up to 3 hours, and they were loving it, because they were hearing a story that was new to them. And the thing that I really enjoyed was, when folk were getting off the coach at various points around the tour, or at the end, very often people would say to me, “That was fascinating! Which bit of English literature did you teach?” I would say, “You know, I didn't actually teach English literature. I taught engineering.”
And I imagine that their faces just were so disappointed.
Well, they were certainly surprised, because the next question was, “So what's the link between the literature and engineering?”
Of course, yeah.
And I very often replied, I said, “You know, there is a link, and the link is logic. Engineering is all about mathematics and basic assumptions and designing something to fit a purpose. And what really appealed to me as an engineer and someone whose bread and butter, all our courses relied on mathematics. What really appealed to me was his logic.” And that kind of gripped them.
And then the other question people used to ask me getting off the coach is, “Oh, that was fascinating. Which book would you recommend that I read first?”
And what do you say?
Ah, well, now that's an interesting question. It differs. And in answering the question, I'm having to make some kind of very quick assessment about the person that I'm speaking to.
Because not all of Lewis's books are useful for all kinds of audiences, and depending on where I thought the individual was coming to, that very often altered the answer to the question.
Questions that Are Hardly Offered
Let's explore this a little bit, Sandy, because I think some of our listeners may get some of these same questions. So what are some of the ones that you offer? And what are some ones that you hardly ever offer?
Yes, yes. Well, I certainly don't start with The Abolition of Man for everybody, but in speaking to people, some of them express their own interests. Like very often people would say to me, “Did Lewis ever write anything about his life story?” And I would say to them, well, he never actually wrote anything that you could properly call an autobiography. And I would explain what I mean by that, and I'm going to come back to the autobiography in a moment or two. But very often I would say to people, “Are you interested in science fiction?” And if they had an interest, I would say, “Well, there are three books of science fiction, if that's the genre that you're interested in, and you don't have to read them in the order in which they were published, but that might interest you.” And I would say then also, “How familiar are you with children's literature and with the raft of it? Because if you haven't read The Chronicles of Narnia, don't just immediately think, ‘Oh, these are books for children,’ for a very good reason. Those books can be read at multiple levels.”
And so sometimes, depending on the person I'm speaking to, I would actually recommend an intro to Lewis via The Chronicles of Narnia. If there are folk who are asking questions that are bordering on a theological nature or who are interested in Lewis’s views on some things, yes, I might well have recommended Mere Christianity, but I think it's important, and I learned a lesson very rapidly at one stage, in that my wife had relatives who were born and brought up in Belfast but who had gone to live in Bristol, in the south of England, and on a visit to Belfast, at one stage, they asked me about this biographical bit and is there anything written about Lewis's links with Belfast? Did he ever write anything himself? I said, “Well, the closest thing that we have that C.S. Lewis wrote himself was Surprised by Joy.” And I said, “He covers a little bit about his growing up in Belfast in that.” And I said, “In fact, here's a copy. Take it back to Bristol and read it. I’m sure we'll discuss it next time you're back.” And when they returned and I said, “How did you get on with Surprised by Joy?” One or two of them surprised me by saying, “We were wondering why you recommended that book, because by the time we had reached chapter four, we had lost the will to live.”
And I have to say that I was a bit disappointed, because I find the book fascinating. My own copy of Surprised by Joy is no longer a book to me. It's an old friend, and it's a valued tool. I use it repeatedly in my lectures and talks and tours. I enjoy the book, but it is just a question of the book itself needs a little intro. People need a way into it. And I find that my tour in Belfast gives to many people that needed entry into Surprised by Joy.
Yes. Well, you know, I remember seeing you pull out your copy of Surprised by Joy on the bus as we were being around, and I thought, “Wow, he really has read that book a lot! It is falling apart!” But I have to say I'm one of those people who—I wouldn't quite say I lost the will to live, but he does get bogged down in the middle chapters about his education. And I very often recommend to people, I say, “Read,” and I don't remember the exact number, but, “these many chapters, and then the next several chapters, or however many, you can skim rather quickly.” Because he just goes into so much more detail about his education and the difficulties about it that I don't know if it's all that crucial. But then I don't want them to quit early, because the last part about, I would say, his two-stage conversion. There’s the conversion from atheism to theism, where he says he was the most reluctant convert. But then there was a second, when he actually became a Christian. And I know a lot of people resonate with either that aspect of things or that whole theme of joy, that theme that pervaded his life, of a longing that could never be totally satisfied. And it was a pointer to another world. And he articulates that so very well, I think, in Surprised by Joy that, in my mind, it's worth reading, even if you have to skim the middle chapters.
Well, you see, that's the bit that I emphasize most when I'm doing that bit of the tour. And it's one of the things that—we’ll maybe talk in a moment or two about the contribution that Belfast has to C.S. Lewis’s life, but also his thinking. And if anyone comes to Belfast, particularly if they encounter me, and leave without this notion of what he called in his technical sense, joy, that is a really important thing to focus on while folk are in Belfast. Because really, he says in that book that the rest of his life is about nothing else. It’s the pursuit of that joy, that longing. And of course, that longing originated here in Belfast. That started at the location where he was born.
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I remember, the first day of the tour, you took us to this tall building where we could see in a lot of directions, and we could see these hills, because Lewis talks about that early on in Surprised by Joy, about it was looking up to these hills that first started this longing for another world. And once I saw those hills, it was, “Okay, I just get it now on a much, much deeper level.”
Yeah. Well, you see, whenever we stood there, and with the group you were with, I do this with all groups. We stand there and look out. Where Lewis was born, is technically in County Down, and you're looking out across to the hills of County Antrim, the [UNKNOWN 21:27] that runs from Belfast, really, right up to the north coast. But he's looking over at this hillside, and what he's seeing on that hillside is, nestled halfway up that hillside is a castle, Belfast Castle. And then, on that hillside, there is the profile of the sleeping giant, which was partly the inspiration for Jonathan Swift and his Gulliver’s Travels and the sleeping giant of Lilliput. That's the view from the nursery where C.S. Lewis spent his childhood, looking north and west.
But if you went to the front of the house, in the days in which the Lewis family lived there, and you're looking south and east, you're seeing the Castlereagh hills. And actually, from where I'm sitting now, speaking to you, it's a beautiful evening, and I'm actually looking out at the Castlereagh hills. Now, the difference in me looking out at them tonight—I can see them. I can see the profile here, and I'm sitting looking at it. But when he was looking at it, he was looking at it as a child, as a five year old, and of course, as a five year old in 1903, the road network isn't what it was today. Half of the buildings—well, more than half of the buildings, most of the buildings that are in front of his house, they weren't there. But as a child, he could see these hills, but he had no possibility of ever reaching them. They are beyond walking distance, and there is no vehicle. There wasn't a car sitting at their front door that they could get into and take a drive out into the hills. They were there.
His father's mode of transport, getting home from his office in Belfast, was a horse-drawn tram for part of the way, and the rest of the distance, he walked. So Lewis makes this point very clearly in his book, that the hills were visible, but they were unattainable.
Ah, yes. Oh, that's beautiful!
That's his word. That isn't my word. That’s his.
You could’ve taken credit for it, Sandy. That would have been okay.
And it was this distance between the hills and himself and then the castle on the other side and the sleeping giant. And that, plus the story that you know well of his brother's little toy garden, which we might come to in a moment or two. But those things combined to create the sense of distance, of something that was not attainable, beyond his reach, and it created this longing.
Yes. Visible, but not attainable. Oh, my! Well, let's talk a little bit about that biscuit tin, because I remember you told that story. Now, Lewis tells it early on in Surprised by Joy. But what I remember was we took a bus ride and we went to the building that was the first place C.S. Lewis ever lived, when he was first born. And there's this little blue plaque on the side of the wall that says, “Birthplace of C.S. Lewis,” and I think it says writer and author and his dates. And I remember thinking, “If I didn't have Sandy Smith here to tell me this story, I would be amazingly disappointed,” because if I was doing this on my own, and I would have found this in a pamphlet or a booklet, and I would go and I'd read, “This is where C.S. Lewis was born.” And then I'd leave and say, “I don't know if it was worth the trouble. There was traffic, and I had to cross a busy road. I always got killed because people drive funny there.” But we stood outside that building, and you told the story about Lewis’s brother bringing him the biscuit tin, and I was mesmerized and love that memory of standing at that spot. So tell us a little bit of that story. We want to let people read it in Surprised by Joy, but recreate a little bit for us here.
Yes, well, you have set the scene perfectly. Yes, it's today a very ordinary avenue, Dundela Avenue, where Lewis’s birthplace is marked with the blue plaque. And the words on that blue plaque are, “C.S. Lewis,” it gives his dates, “1898 to 1963, Christian author and apologist.” Now, it's interesting that, as you said, you've set the scene perfectly. It's a very ordinary setting. The building that he was born in were two houses in a very rural setting. Those buildings are gone. But the story is what you need to tell to grip people's imagination of him telling of the two boys. His brother was three years older than him. They are sent out on a summer morning. The family had employed a nurse to help with the children when they were both small, and his brother, Warnie is sent out into the garden and given the lid of a biscuit tin to play with. And of course, what he does is he goes around this very large garden. He adorns it with pulling moss off the garden, laying it down to make the moss look like a little lawn. And then he puts twigs and petals and flowers and leaves, and he adorns the biscuit and to make it look like a toy garden. And when it's finished, he presents it to his younger brother as a piece of finished artwork, this little toy. And Lewis says he remembers three distinct things about that moment in time: He remembered how it smelled. There was the smell of the damp moss, but also the smell of a flowering currant bush. A flowering currant bush, in this country, if you squeeze the leaves of a flowering currant, the scent would remain on your fingertips for many hours after. It’s quite a strong smell. And Lewis said, of that moment in time, he said for the rest of his life, he could never pass a flowering currant without remembering that morning and the biscuit tin in the garden.
But he goes on to tell us two other things about it: He said he remembers its aesthetic appeal, the color, the variegation on the leaves, the texture. But the other thing is, he remembers how it felt, because in looking at the artwork, he instantly had a longing. The scent and the smell, the beautiful color, filled him with a longing, and he didn't know what it… He described the feeling of longing. He said it gave him an anxiety. There was a tension, something that he couldn't understand.
And years later, he very often asked himself, the child, C.S. Lewis, as a child, what was it that caused that tension, that anxiety, when looking at a little piece of his brother's artwork in the garden of their home in East Belfast? And he felt that this was an arrow sent to him to remind him, “There is something else.” And this longing was for something that was missing. And I think that's an important bit to get over, and talking in a tour in Belfast, that's an important point to leave people with. And I do leave folk with that feeling on the tour. And it's interesting. It's one of the things that sticks in people’s minds, like it did stick in yours.
Perhaps you've heard the story of Rosaria Butterfield, a tenured English professor at Syracuse University and a lesbian who became a Christian through the long, patient witness of Ken Smith of a Reformed Presbyterian church. Maybe you've read Rosaria Butterfield's book, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. Well, we have the great privilege, through the C.S. Lewis Institute, to hear from both of them, Rosaria Butterfield and Ken Smith, on a livestream event coming on Friday, March 27, at 8:00 p.m. It'll be a great time to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories and just to hear both of their voices of how this connection was first made, what they first thought of each other, and what we, as followers of Jesus Christ, can learn about interacting with people who may seem very, very different from us. So please go to our website, cslewisinstitute.org/friendship, and register for the event. It's free, but we do need for you to register. Again, that's Friday night, March 27, at 8:00 p.m.
Well, I think that there are… Lewis spells it out in Mere Christianity, in his chapter on hope. But I think there are a whole lot of people who resonate with that but they've never had anybody draw it out in them.
Yeah. He articulates what they're feeling, what they have felt, they feel the same longing.
Yeah. And I think for a lot of people, they just squelch it, like, “Oh, I'm just being over sentimental or something.” Or, “Come on, that's for children. Children do that.” And Lewis is the one who says, “Well, yeah, you could go either of those directions, cynicism or squelching it. Or hedonism, I guess.” But Lewis is the one who even—and he says it the most logical explanation. Well, I don't think it is the most logical explanation for most people, but when he says it, you go, “Of course! The most logical explanation is I keep having these experiences because I was made for another world.”
Yeah. That's exactly the point.
So you've given me a whole new vision for praying for you, Sandy, because I'm going to pray that, when you take people to that spot outside that building and tell that story, that it would be an arrow in their hearts as well. Like I said, otherwise it's just a brick wall with a blue plaque on it.
That's exactly what it is. And the interesting thing about that, Randy, is that Lewis did use the word joy, and he said that joy, in his sense, was different from either pleasure or happiness, because he said pleasure, you can, to some extent, if you have enough money, and if there are some things that give you pleasure, you can buy them and recreate them. But the thing about joy is it comes with the unexpected stab, when you don't expect it. And people who may, at one stage, pooh-pooh it and want to experiment in some other way, when they're least expecting it, they feel it. They feel the same thing [UNKNOWN 32:36], and it's like being stabbed all over again.
Well, if I can take just a moment. So for me, that moment came every Saturday night when I went to the Philadelphia Academy of Music to hear concerts, and I thought I was going to find what I was looking for in a piece of music, but every piece of music disappointed. Even the most satisfying piece of music, well, they came to an end. And it was great pleasure, of hearing the music, but a stab at the end of every concert. And it was when I read Lewis’s chapter on hope that I went, “That’s it! That's why Tchaikovsky and Debussy and Dvorak and Rachmaninoff leave me unsatisfied, even though I love, I just love, the music. But sometimes that moment dissipates and disappears even before the piece of music is over.
So, anyway, well, I want to tell our listeners also that there was another thing for me on the tour that was so very helpful. Being in Belfast and then going to Oxford, it helped me see… I read and thought of Lewis much more as the Oxford don, the academic scholar in his study, reading books and writing books. And that is certainly true. That is a huge part of who he is. But there's the Irishman, the storytelling, joke telling, sitting around with a friend in the pub, that I grew to appreciate by being in very, very green, lush Belfast and hearing you tell stories. It was like, “Oh, Lewis was much more of an Irishman than an Englishman,” and I hope I don't get in trouble from who knows how many people for saying that. So that's what your tour guiding helped me with.
We’re coming to the end of our time. I want to try to push this, if I can, a little bit. I hope this isn't too bad. So how has all of this affected you in your own personal walk with the Lord? You study Lewis, you take people around. What have been some things that have deepened your faith or strengthened your spiritual growth in all of this?
Yeah. Well, yes, thanks for that question, Randy. I first encountered Lewis in my late teens, and I had been really brought up in a Christian home, but I had never really been challenged about life's big questions. And there had been an acceptance. And when I went off to university, arrived in Queens, I discovered that there are people who are very entrenched. They just didn't believe the gospel that I was brought up to believe. They had serious questions about it. And that was kind of a taking stock couple of years for me. And I encountered Lewis at a time when I was struggling with the life's big questions, like the problem of pain and suffering in our world.
The other thing that Lewis said was, you never know the story that might have been. You need to know the story that there was. But I think, had I not encountered Lewis writings at that point, I may not have had a walk with the Lord. I think I was on a trajectory where I could have abandoned things that I had grown up to believe very fervently by my late teens. And so I really attribute encountering Lewis’s writing, plus one other person that I encountered at a critical stage of my life, that today means that I do have a walk with the Lord.
And the future sense that not only was there a rescue of me by Lewis back all those years ago, but reading his books still, even books that I have read over and over again, I find them sustaining me. And I read little snippets that I've read before, and just the wonder of them strikes me over again. And so I thought, “Yes, that is the fact of the matter.” I have read that before, but it comes with a very sustaining confidence that, “Yes, I understood that when I first read it, and it has remained with me, and I can use that and mediate that to others.” And I have that experience repeatedly when I read and reread Lewis's books.
Oh, that is great! Thank you for sharing that. Well, we could talk a whole lot more, but I want to leave people just a little bit like a tease, so they say, “I've got to go on one of these tours!” And so let me be shameless in putting a plug for our C.S. Lewis Institute Study Tour of Belfast and Oxford. Lord willing, we're planning to go back again in the fall of 2021. Lord willing and relief from COVID.
And if somehow you end up at yourself in Belfast, find Sandy online. You can find out tours. And I think you'll love Belfast. And by the way, it's a good thing to do on a Sunday. Oh, wait, people might want to go to church too. That's good. Well, Sunday afternoon will work.
Anyway, Sandy, it's been a joy having you on. We're going to sign off now. Let me say to our listeners that we hope that this podcast and all of our podcasts and all of our resources help you grow in your walk with the Lord. They help you love the Lord Jesus Christ with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.