2. Dublin 1939-48
The first home that I remember was called Alders, Gordon Avenue, Foxrock. I suppose that it shaped my idea of what a home should be. It was built as part of a new estate, quite posh houses. One of the neighbouring houses had green tiles, which I thought looked interesting. There were people called Challoners opposite, and the Combens, I think, next door. We knew Doris Comben.
My memories of Foxrock are quite random. I am sure that I remember my third birthday there, and opening a birthday card with three kittens. I remember standing outside the front door and revelling in my grown-up three year age: Do you know, Granny, before I was three I was two. That, to me, was not just arithmetic. It was a great leap from baby-hood into - well, being a respectable age.
I seem to remember one of my parents going off to Dublin to choose paint to decorate St Kevin's Rectory in the South Circular Road, where were moved in December 1939, and the other parent calling "Don't choose pink!"
The bedroom I loved sleeping in faced the front of the house, and had pink curtains, that glowed in the morning sunshine, and I remember feeling blissfully happy.
I don't remember playing with any friends, either in Foxrock or in St Kevin's Rectory. In fact mine was quite a solitary childhood, until I went to school. There was a boy who came to stay opposite Alders with his grandparents, I suppose, and he came over to play in our back garden. Unfortunately there was a nest of wasps in the bank by the tennis court, which we decided it would be fun to pelt with stones. The wasps did not take kindly to this, and chased us down the garden. I got away, but the other lad called out 'I've been stung!' It turned out that he was allergic to wasp stings, and swelled up horribly for several days. One lesson learned.
The one friend that my parents encouraged in Dublin was the son of the neigbouring Rector, Mr Blackwell. David Blackwell and I were set to play together, but we never hit it off. I remember being asked round one Easter to share David's big easter egg. When I arrived, tongue hanging out as it were, he had eaten it all except for a couple of millimeters square.
After the Blackwells moved to Blessington I went to stay with them, and remember one incident vividly. It was in their church hall. Saturdayevening, probably, and the rector was going to show a film. It was The Lost World, based on Conan Doyle I believe, a silent film, black and white except for one sequence where it turned red, probably because of some huge fire. Very dramatic, for the time. Anyway, we were all getting the hall ready, and I thought I would helpfully dismantle the table tennis table. I took one of the leaves, and held it over my head. Then I lowered it onto my head to take the weight, and the whole leaf gently broke in two and drooped either side of me. It was made of rather weak and thin softboard. I was afraid that I would be in deep trouble, but Mrs Blackwell laughed heartily, and all was well. I found that other families took accidents like this more lightly than ours did- or perhaps just than I did. I went to stay with the Switzers, family friends, who had a holiday cabin and a caravan on a turf bog somewhere remote - I don't know where - and the boy and I went on a bit of water in some sort of rough boat. I fell in, and thought it was a big deal. I even took my wet clothes and stuffed them out of sight in the caravan. But Mrs Switzer too reacted by laughing, and fished out the wet clothes to wash and dry, as a very small matter - which indeed it was.
Later on I had three great friends. There was Rodney Stafford, who lived on the way to my first school, in a rather nice house with a corner plot garden that seem big to me. His father was an architect and he was an only son. We set up a gang of two, and laid out headquarters in different parts of his garden, under bushes and so on. We made a secret map of HQ1 and HQ2, and probably thought we were escaping the notice of the adults in the house. The Staffords had a maid. At one time we were so keen on our games that I walked round early in the morning to make an owl sound under Rodney's wndow to call him out to play, but his mother heard what was going on, and made a much better owl sound, and then told me to go home!
I didn't see so much of Rodney's father, but enjoyed his sound-effects of artillery, which Rodney insisted he do: 'Shwish, shwish, shwish, crump!'
Nearer home my two friends were Gordon Henderson next door in 83 Kimmage Road East, and Alan Field who lived in the cul-de-sac opposite that led to the cricket field.
Gordon was older than me and went to The High School, where he thrilled me with tales of his Black Flash Gang. He showed me the pencil-drawn paper badge that the gang wore. He began Latin before I did, and get me to hear him his learning homework. When I (who had started oral French at Mount Temple School) said I didn't know Latin pronunciation, he told me that it was pronounced just like English. The ArLT would disagree now, but it did well enough at the time.
Gordon had lost his mother before I knew him. He father worked at the Four Courts. The two much older sisters Audrey and Pauline helped to keep house. I was struck by Gordon's 10th birthday cake, because unlike all of ours, it had brown icing and white candles. Very grown-up. Well, he seemed very grown-up himself.
The Hendersons had a big garden room at the end of their garden which they once used for a dance. I remember the business of getting the floor ready for dancing. I have an idea they used french chalk or something. They had a wind-up gramaphone, which we never had, and a selection of 10 inch records including
"I'm packing my grip
I think it must have been to do with the mass migration across the USA to California during and after WW2. Of course I was far too young to have any part in the dance.
and I'm leaving today,
for I'm going a trip
They also had an air rifle, which to my great frustration I was thought too young to use. I was convinced that I would be very safe, of course. I think they got it out only once, so I wasn't tormented by the lack of it.
Alan Field went to St Andrew's College with me, so we cycled together, as far as I remember. He later joined the staff there. He and I spent a lot of time messing about on bikes. I don't know what his father did for a living, but he kept all his old razor blades in the garage, rusting away. Can't imagine why. Alan and I used to listen to Dick Barton, Special Agent, every evening, ears glued to the wireless. I remember Alan's mother remarking one evening "I can hear it perfectly well from the other side of the room." But that would not have been the same. The serial was all-absorbing. I missed the very first story, but heard of the horrible ending when Spider, the villain, was sucked to his death in quicksand. There were horrors enough to come, with the heroes Dick Barton, Jock and Snowy stuck under at the bottom of a lift-shaft with the lift coming down to crush them (not good for my claustrophobia), or just about to be swept down into a pit, and so on. I went on listening to Dick Barton for years, moving to the Saturday omnibus until I went to boarding school.
Gordon, Alan and Rodney were all protestants, and we really didn't mix with Roman Catholics. Gordon was a presbyterian. I don't remember about the others, but Alan and I did go once to the Band of Hope at a Methodist church in Rathgar, and when we got home we spent a long time writing out a comedy routine that we intended to perform at the next Band of Hope meeting, but never did. It amused us greatly in the writing and decorating of the script.
The disadvantage of going around with the older Gordon was that he had his older friends, who liked to go and hand around the tennis club and so on, and I was left out. Mum did once suggest that since I often used to come home distressed after such outings, I should find something else to do, but I couldn't help going and trying to join in. I must have been rather an irritation to the bigger boys.
Going back to St Kevin's Rectory days, I remember some of the ways I passed the time by myself in the back garden. It was during the war, so when there was an aeroplane passing overhead I would shoot at it with a piece of iron piping. Once I climbed up onto the garden wall and raised the pipe, and fell straight down into the garden next door. We had never had anything to do with the people next door, but she came and rescued me.
On the other side, the neighbour fed birds, so we lived always in the sound of seagulls. There were plenty of seagulls, because Dublin is a port.
In the corner of the garden was a garage leading out into the back lane. No car during the war. There were treasures in the garage, including oil, grease, and sawdust. Raw materials for wonderful pies. There were also pieces of wood, those iron pipes, and building materials for The Queen Mary, which I worked on for a long time, it seemed, until it appeared to me to be a perfect copy of the real thing. It was based on the garden seat, and had a funnel or two (there were even chimney pots in the garage). Dad came and took a photo when it was finished, and the picture still exists. Well, perhaps it is not a perfect model, but we all agreed at the time that it was splendid.
The coming of more family was something mysterious to me. Dad did try once to explain that he sowed a seed and Mummy had the baby, but I took it as something quite spiritual, nothing physical at all. Dad told me, when I was nearly 3, about Victor's birth and very short life, and said that Mummy had been very brave, but it didn't mean much to me.
When Dorothy arrived I was used to my solitary life, but I do remember the excitement of being taken to Hatch Street to see my new sister. I took a pair of scissors and cut out a pair of spectacles from white paper, as a gift to Dorothy. I can't imagine why I chose that. When we arrived to see Mum in her room in the nursing home, which was beside Harcourt Street Station, I was told that Dorothy was 'having her dinner'. Knowing nothing of breast feeding, I imagined that my sister was next door in the dining room sitting up at table, and that I would see her when she came back. I suppose that she was pointed out to me, and I suppose that I draped the paper specs over her face somehow, but it is all a blurr.
I thought that I loved Dorothy very much, but obviously I must have showed jealously, but my Granny once said "I am sure you really do love her, and if she needed you you would help her! - or words to that effect. What I do remember is that I fell beckward off a cushion or pouffe and Dorothy laughed out loud, so I went on rolling off the pouffe to amuse her.
Later on I'm afraid I teased Dorothy mercifully, and one of the first phrases of hers I remember was her saying "Dadid, couldn't you don't!" I felt I didn't want to be cruel, but just couldn't help myself. Sorry, Dorothy.
When Robert arrived, he and Dorothy were much close in age than I was to them, and I'm afraid I don't remember playing with him much, until we were a good deal older, and played garden cricket, and played with a tent. That single thickness garden tent as the same one that Robert and I took with us on our great journey to Vienna. We may have tried to waterproof it before we took it abroad, but I do remember sleeping in it in Switzerland, through a thunderstorm. We had to refrain from touching the fabric, and most of the deluge stayed on the outside of the tent.
The first bicycle my parents bought me was too big for me. I think they tried to help me ride it, and probably Uncle Charlie had a go when he visited, but it was no good. They then dound a small ad which offeed a little green bike, and we got that. I still couldn't ride, but I used to scoot on this green bike to and fro in the hall in Kimmage Road East. Suddenly I realised that I was balancing, and that was it. I could cycle. It was a thrill, and I spent hours and hours on bikes with friends from then on. We made them into motorbikes by fixing half a postcard to each side of the wheel and letting the spokes make a brrm brrm sound. We rode down into the middle of Dublin quite happily, and I rode out to Foxrock and found it was not so far after all to go and see Granny. I was so lucky to be a cyclist in the days before traffic got so heavy and threatening.
Dorothy remembers when a friend and I put on a little show which she thought was wonderful. It was putting into practice what we read in Arthur Mee's Children's Encylopedia. One person stands behind another, behind a table, with their arms under arms of the person in front, his hands on the table in shoes and socks. The arms of the front person act as the arms of the visible performer. With judicious use of drapes or a jacket the two figures look like one short person, who can dance on the table. The face of the person behind is, or course, hidden behind the front person.
I wrote that Dorothy thought it was wonderful - but she points out that I was so much older that everything I did seemed wonderful; in fact it was only when I did an obviously foolish thing - put an old-fashioned mercury thermometer under the hot tap to clean it - that she and Robert realised that I had feet of clay. That wasn't till we moved to England.
Memories of my first school. It was Mount Temple, by Palmerston Park.
Mum told me that I wept bitterly on my first day. I remember being very shy. The bottom class, which I was in, had its classroom in what was probably an attic. At any rate it was right at the top, with just a loo one side of the passage and the classroom the other, overlooking the park. I was told about the loo on my first morning, but I don't know that I ever plucked up courage to go to it for months.
The teacher was Miss Smith. At the back of the classroom was a lovely dolls' house which I admired, but I'm not sure if I played with it. In front of the lass was an easel, which Miss Smith presumably used for teaching; but the use that I remember was on Fridays, when we had The Ladder. We each had a grade for our week's work, from a star, vg, g, vf, and fair. The ladder was drawn on the blackboard, one rung for each grade. Miss Smith would go through each child and ask us to guess its we. We knew there was no 'f' grade, because if anyone sank so low there would be no ladder that week. We also knew there had to be a certain number of stars. It was a very simple system, but it delighted me. The visual result was the class achievement, not individual competition.
Before school we had assembly in the biggest room, on the middle floor - that was the level that the front steps - starcase, almost, led to. The whole school fitted into this room, so it can't have been a very big school. Big ones were at the back, little at the front. Miss Sweeney the headmistress took the register, and one of the first names she read out was David, so of course I answered. She said sharply "That isn't David's voice." There was another David, and I learned to wait my turn.
That big room was separated from another, facing the back garden, by a folding screen. In the back room we learned Geography, and I used to stare at a plaster model of a hill or mountain, with the contour lines marked on it. Also visible was the map with the same contour lines. There was no need of explanation. The model made it perfectly clear, and contours never held any mystery for me.
We used to have a little time to read individually to one of the teachers, perhaps before assembly. I don't remember what we read, except for one story which I thought very advanced, and contained the word 'ebony'. I had learned from my Granny to read from 'Reading Without Tears' (see her life) so I had a good start.
Miss Sweeney herself taught us French, which yearI don't know. We sat round a low table in low chairs and had a teaparty in French with dolls' teaset, or just chatted. One time we did clothes, and Miss S wanted to illustrate bith 'blouse' and 'chemise'. She asked two of us boys to show whether our tops tucked in like a shirt or not, like a blouse. We were both wearing blouses, but she picked the other boy's to stand in for a shirt. I felt humiliated! Teachers don't realise.
While we were having one of our French lessons, Miss Ashworth, the second mistress, came by and commented on it. She said "When I went to school we learned French out of a book." We thought that was an outrageous idea. I think I would nevr have picked up a good French accent had I not had this oral-only start.
At appropriate times of the year we had a nature competition. There was a bud competition, and a bark competition. A grass competition as well. For these we went in one by one to a very small room and were faced with ten or more numbered specimens which we had to name. We were taken for nature walks into Palmerston Park, so we had picked up quite a bit. The Park is still there, and still looks lovely. It was most memorable in the autumn.
In perhaps my second year we were allowed to bring sandwiches and stay for lunchtime. The main school day was just the morning. Miss S said when could teach in the morning everything that another school could teach in a full day, and I'm sure she was right.
The first result of my eating sandwiches in the big classroom was that I overheard a Latin lesson the other end of the room, and picked up the names of the cases without trying. Then came the great day when I started Latin myself. Dad had once told me that to be properly educated one should know Latin, and that was a given for me, so I took the option. I have loved it ever since. It was the logical puzzle at first, that got me. The idea of a living language came much later. As for the Romans being a real people, to be honest that didn't enter my mind till seconday age. It was irrelevant to the lovely puzzle. I would have had no sympathy with the young Churchill questioning why one should ever say "O table." Why not?
There was another teacher whose name I forget, that I had a bit of a crush on. She taught geography, and when we were cycling home and happened to be together, and she talked to me, I was quite embarrassed.
We used to write a page of hand-writing lines, copied from a piece of card that we paper-clipped to the exercise book. Two of mine were:
Brave Drake sailed round the world in the Golden Hind, and
Silence is golden. Waste not, want not.
One girl from the school invited me round on Saturday. She had a toothpaste poster or game or something, protecting the ivory castles, which I enjoyed. Some children went to Miss Smith on a Saturday for extra drawing lessons, but I didn't.
I remember some parties. Two of them included a big practical joke. A line of children sat down on the floor pretending to be members of a royal court, and the rest of us came in and had it explained that the custom was to shake the foot rather than the hand. The foot of one of the children was a dummy, and came away in your hand. The other one was again with a line of children, this time on chairs. We were invited to 'sit beside the king and queen of Sheba'. It turned out that we had to sit in the space between their two chairs, hidden by a rug; and we sat down sharply on the ground. Health and safety would not allow ...
While we were in Kimmage Road East I began to play the piano. Mum taught me, with the aid of Rowland's Instantaneous Keyboard Indicator, a wonderful long piece of card that stuck up behind the piano keys, with both the keys printed on it, and above them the written staves. So every note on the piano had its proper printed version. Magic. It worked.
Aunt Irene passed on some elementary piano books - using, unfortunately, the old fngering with a cross for the thumb and 1-4 for the fingers. The Bluebells of Scotland was among the tunes, and Ah je dire vous Maman (or similar) which was I think Twinkle twinkle little star. There were also Czerney's 101 exercises. I used to rattle off the first one very fast. I didn't go for formal piano lessons till London.
See the lives I have written of Mum, Granny and Uncle Charlie for the part they played in my Dublin days. Also for holidays in Delgany Rectory and lots more.
Visitors came particularly to Kimmage, part of Dad's job as CMS secretary. One was Oliver Allison, who was at that time Assistant Bishop Designate of the Sudan. I didn't know what the words meant, but they sounded grand, and I felt it was a come-down when he became simply Assistant Bishop.
Foreign stamps came to the CMS office in abundance, and they were brought home and I collected stamps quite keenly. Gordon and I sent off for samples, and spent our pennies carefully. I had a Stanley Gibbons album, and Uncle Charlie bought me a Stanley Gibbons catalogue, which was my constant study. I only lost interest when I invested in a loose-leaf album, which came to pieces - the spring was too strong for the binding, and I lost heart.
From the stamps I recall were a dhow on Lake Victoria, and quite a bit of a sheet of mauve Victoria stamps. I had some penny reds, but never a penny black. Uncle Charlie encouraged me, and even offered to buy a pound stamp, but I thought that just buying was not playing the game, so I declined. The stamp album, in its useless state, is probably still here in the house. Might be worth a look sometime.
I wrote recently, on the ArLT blog, I think, about the big freeze of 1947. That was when I had pneumonia for the second time, and shortly before we left for England.