Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Cycling diaries

Wed 3rd Nov 10

I have put my six cycling diaries from the noughties up on this page, password needed (my cycling companion’s middle name and year of birth; if it was Thackeray you’d write Makepeace1811).

Phyllis Faris

Wed 13th Oct 10

Phyllis was born in Killiney in 1910. Her father Ernest Robinson was the youngest son of a Dublin coal merchant. Ernest and his two brothers all went separately to South Africa after their father’s firm went bankrupt in the 1890s, and Ernest was the only one to return home. He was a soldier in the Boer War and became a Captain in the First World War. After leaving the army he studied law and became a barrister in his forties, with middling success. Phyllis, his eldest child, spent much of her early childhood with her mother’s family, the Waterhouses. Her mother, known as Dolly to all her family, was noted for her unflappable tact and good sense. Dolly’s mother-in-law had let her know that Ernest was to be spoiled thoroughly, and she duly did that.

From the earliest age Phyllis was mad about horses. About the age of nine or ten she got in the habit of leaving the house early in the morning by climbing down a tree from an upstairs window, and helping the local milkman make his rounds. While he put the milk on his float, she would ride the horse around his field. He allowed her to drive the milk float on its round, and she would always remember with horror one occasion when the horse got going too fast and couldn’t slow down on the steep Killiney hill; it was galloping out of control, but either by luck or skill, or both, no harm was done. When the round was over, Phyllis would return home and look out for a sign from her sister, a towel in the window, to show that her father had left the bathroom and she could climb back up the tree and in through the window.

One day one of her Waterhouse uncles met the young Phyllis on the road with a herd of cows. She was entrusted with the herd by a local farmer, to bring them from one field to another. Rather than drive the cows, the method was to take the bull by the ring in its nose, holding it with a hook on the end of a pole, lead it along, and all the cows would follow. Her uncle was horrified and ordered her to let go of that dangerous beast at once. The ten-year-old refused to do such a ridiculous thing, and her uncle stormed off to report her to her parents, who saw her point of view and stood up for her.

Phyllis was sent to the French School in Bray, where (she would say) she got the worst education imaginable. She always loved reading but regretted that her expensive education had given her no taste in literature. Her parents were worse off than their owning-class upbringing, but even when money was tight, the family always kept a living-in servant. Phyllis and the other children were forbidden to play either with their Catholic neighbours or with Protestant ones of the wrong class. In the 1920s the family did become friendly with one local Catholic family, the Burkes, through their sons’ meeting in the Boy Scouts. One of the Burkes, who became a nun, remained a lifelong friend and constant correspondent of Phyllis and her sister Audrey.

At the age of eighteen or so Phyllis answered an ad in a newspaper and took a poultry apprenticeship with a Mrs Hamilton in Killeshandra. She loved the work and got on well with everyone there. She would answer back firmly when accused of not having done some task, “That is because you told me to stop and do something else”, which Mrs Hamilton would have to confess was true. The Hamiltons’ son Guy was expected to be called ‘Master Guy’ by the apprentices, but Phyllis reasoned that in that case he should call her ‘Miss Robinson’, as she was an apprentice and not a servant, so he relented and they proceeded on first-name terms. One one occasion at the Hamiltons’ an older man, perhaps the father, asked Phyllis “Are you a Catholic?” to which she replied, remembering her Nicene Creed, “Yes, but not a Roman Catholic”. Again, her logic was recognised.

While in Cavan she became friendly with Jack Faris from Cornafean. He had been to Portora School with Sam Beckett (though he didn’t remember much about him, since Beckett was three years his junior). After her apprenticeship was complete Phyllis returned to Dublin; by this time the family had moved from Killiney to Monkstown. She kept poultry at home for several years, selling eggs locally, despite her father immediately taking down the ‘Eggs for sale’ sign she put on the gate; it wouldn’t do to have such a thing seen at the home of a barrister. Phyllis became engaged to Jack and in June 1935 they were married in Monkstown Parish Church; Phyllis was twenty-four, Jack in his early thirties. They lived first in Dundalk, where Jack had a job; later he became an inspector of butchers’ shops, enforcing the wartime limits on meat production. A butcher would claim he had only one carcass on the premises, and Jack would sometimes quietly  remark that it was a queer beast that had two left sides.

Phyllis had a close bond with her mother all her life, and a fairly stormy relationship with her father. He must have seemed almost a stranger. returning from the war when Phyllis was eight. She had three younger brothers and one sister. Her eldest brother became a successful Dublin businessman and her sister married and had a family, but both her youngest brothers died in their early twenties, flying in the RAF. One came down in fog over the sea shortly before the Second World War, returning from a mission to France. The other, the youngest of the family, died in action near the end of the war, in 1944. Once, while he was was stationed in Liverpool during the war, a Spitfire appeared over their Dublin house, diving and wheeling round. His father was perturbed but his mother said, “Oh, that’s just Kenneth up to his naughtiness”. She wrote to Kenneth in Liverpool, knowing that his letters would be censored, to say, “We had a visit from Basil [Kenneth’s middle name] the other day. He really is a very naughty boy.”

When Jack inherited Corr farm at Cornafean they moved there, and their son Ronald was born in 1941. Sadly the child died after a week, and they never had another. Phyllis went on receiving advertisements from various firms: “Now your child is two, you will need this”. Her instinct for conservation saw her keep even these painful letters to the end of her life.

Jack’s mother was feared by all the Faris family, but Phyllis got on well with her. Phyllis had the leg of her from the start, as she put it. Rather than ask her mother-in-law’s advice she would say, for instance, “We have decided to decorate this room with green dots and pink stripes.” The mother-in-law was free to give her opinion, which Phyllis could consider and reply, “We think green and pink would be good”. She knew that if advice is asked and then not followed it can breed resentment.

Shortly after moving in to Corr House Phyllis was visited by a woman who invited her to join a women’s Orange society. Phyllis felt outraged; she sent her away with a flea in her ear without ever finding out who she was. Like all her family, even her British Army father, she welcomed the new Irish State, and in turn the Republic; she put her energy into developing it, by helping to empower Irish women. She was deeply involved in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, particularly organising debates, readings and impromptu speaking competitions, to encourage women to speak fearlessly in public. She was remembered for this by women who had been at first barely able  so much as to stand up and say their name.

She could be spectacularly infuriated, for instance by a letter she received in her nineties asking her to contribute material for a book about ‘the West Brit’. That is a category she never subscribed to.

Phyllis died in Corr House at the age of ninety-six, still living alone, the last of her siblings. She asked me to tell her the names of all my brothers’ families, and by the time I finished she had slipped into a coma from which she didn’t awake.

Uncle Tom

Mon 20th Sep 10

I’ve been learning a French song on ukulele—La Mer by Charles Trénet. Infinitely more poetic than its English translation Somewhere Over the Sea which I remember from childhood.

The other day I looked at a few YouTube clips of Trénet singing it in his gentle bass voice, so mellifluous and evocative. In this version something about him reminded me of my Uncle Tom, who died when I was about twenty. He didn’t look particularly like him, though they both had broad faces and thrilling voices; Tom’s hair was dark but had the same kind of wave in it as Trénet’s. All the same I think the thing that reminded me most of Uncle Tom was the eager light that played over his features, particularly his eyes.

Uncle Tom was a clergyman with a wicked sense of humour. He had a talent for making ghost stories incredibly scary. I remember listening transfixed in the cottage at Brittas Bay with four or five others as he told us about Peggy’s Leg and The Man With No Face. Peter asked him to stop, and he did, probably on account of me. I was the youngest there, maybe eight or nine at the time. But my memory of the creepy feeling is not in the least unpleasant, and never was.

Later I went with some of the same group of cousins to horror films in Skerries, the ticket sellers turning blind eyes to my obvious underage. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula. Not a patch on Uncle Tom.

A Heavy Melodrama

Thu 27th May 10

Every summer until I was eleven we spent two months in Green Cottage, Brittas Bay. Peter made friends there with David Rowell, who was the exact same age, and we celebrated their common birthday every August.

Rollo had a fund of Jimmy O’Dea comedy scripts by memory, and it became a tradition for us to put on shows for parents and friends. Here’s one:

Villain: At last Lady Rosalind we meet face to face. Last time I was here you scorned me, upbraided me, and spurned me from your door. But now the tables are turned and you are in my power!

Lady R: But you cannot take the roof from off my child’s head!

Villain: I care nothing for you or your brat! Begone!

Lady R: But my husband is the rightful owner and may still be living!

Villain: Your husband is dead—I have here the proof!

The hero is supposed to come on at that point and say ‘Your deeds are false, for I am here’, and the comedy arises from his failure to do so, whereupon the whole thing is repeated, at increasing tempo, until finally he enters confidently with ‘Your teeth are false for I am here’.

I was the youngest of the group, and always played Lady Rosalind. A Mrs. King, mother of one of the crowd, said (once she had finished upbraiding us for scratching the cellulose on her car) ‘It will be a muracle if you don’t all end up on the stage.’

Ruby anniversary

Fri 2nd Oct 09

This weekend we celebrate forty years. That is something.

From the happy day I met you
I made a bet that I was going to get you
Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, will you be mine?

The power of cheap music

Fri 20th Mar 09

Like Vladimir Nabokov, as a small child I had that greatest of luxuries, an English nanny. Whereas he had a ‘bewildering sequence’ of over half a dozen, called nurses and governesses, I had just one. We didn’t call her a nanny, we called her a housekeeper, but she did plenty of nannying, nursing and governing.

We actually called her Auntie Elsie, which was the kind of thing adults dreamed up in the nineteen-fifties to confuse children. I never knew she was an employee at all, until Nick, bridling at being asked to do the washing-up, muttered “What do we pay you for?”

Poor Nick got a lot of stick, blame, and disapproval while I, two years younger and dastardly cute, was (I deduce) spoiled rotten by Elsie. My apologies to you, Nick, I must have been a real pain in the arse.

Two jingles I learned from Elsie (she was in fact a Hobbert, from Bristol) left a deep and lasting impression on my psyche:

See saw, Marjorie Daw, Johnny shall have a new master,
He shall have but a penny a day because he can’t work any faster.

I took that on as a personal reference, with quiet resignation. I have never really considered myself capable of earning what might be called money. No point trying, was my attitude. My father was too successful for any of us to rival.

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.
Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, that’s what little boys are made of.

That one at least is true.

Pop’s Five-shooter

Mon 29th Dec 08

In October 2006 I made use of a two-month amnesty on illegally-held firearms to hand in to the guards my grandfather’s Iver Johnson revolver. My aunt Phyllis had asked me to get rid of it for her; it was in her safe along with her collections of mint crowns and half-crowns, and various bits of family silver including Pop’s ‘Captain’s Cup’ from the Killiney Golf Club.

Phyllis and my father had thought of it as Pop’s service revolver, which he had kept after serving in the 1914-18 war, but it must have been one he bought privately; Iver Johnsons were never British Army issue. It was made in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1917, at which time it would have sold for about eight dollars. I doubt whether he could have got away with retaining army property. Ernest Robinson had had a pleasant enough war, I gather, serving as a quartermaster in England and rising to the rank of Captain.

He had left Ireland at sixteen to fight in the Boer War, when his father’s coal importing business had gone bankrupt. The old man had had a cycling accident in Blackrock, and while he was in hospital his creditors demanded payment of their outstanding bills, evidently fearing he might die. He paid 12/6 in the pound, that is 62.5%, a figure my Dad always said was far from bankruptcy, at least by late-20th century standards. Any trader who could raise that much on short notice was doing well. In the 1890s the shame of that event was painful, and the three sons of W W Robinson all left for South Africa. My grandfather was the only one who came back; the elder two lost contact with the family and with each other.

Dad told me that during the Troubles in the 1920s, when Phyllis and he were children, their father had given them strict instructions never to look out the window if they heard their gate squeak open at night. The implication was that someone on the run might be hiding in their garden. Pop had no sympathy for the IRA, but if possible even less for the Black and Tans. He later told the children that if either of those groups had knocked on his door, he would have shot first and asked questions later. They evidently believed him capable of it; both Phyllis and Dad had a lifelong horror of guns.


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