Sunday, 12 September 2010

Me aged 7  
When I first moved over from the Republic in about 1957, there were some amazing discoveries to be made by a young Irish boy. I always felt sorry for the black folk, who were still openly referred to as Niggers, and people would cross the road to avoid getting close to them. Being Irish was considered just as bad, if not worse, but at least I was white and could hide my identity by just not speaking. I used to practise in my room, talking to myself and desperately trying to sound English. Now I wish I had my Irish accent back like all my cousins. Racism was rife, but being foreign was just one of many excuses that people would find to pick on you. If you were disabled, wearing callipers or built up shoes, you were considered fair game. We still lived in a time where most disabled newborn babies were smothered by the midwife, so there were nowhere near the amount of disabled people as there are today. It was only 12 years or so after the war, but I don't remember seeing any 'war wounded' people around. People with mental health problems, even depression, were simply put in mental homes and there was at least one of those in every town. If electric shock treatment didn't cheer them up, they were eventually moved into mental asylums and then just forgotten.

I had been used to going everywhere on a pony and trap back in Ireland, and even though I had seen cars, I had never seen so many as there were in England. We still had steam trains in Ireland but in England they were being phased out and the new diesel trains, although much cleaner, were nowhere near as exciting to watch. There was a big railway yard in Colchester where all the old steam engines were lined up, ready to be scrapped; a very sad sight.
Walking on pavements was a novelty, with big flat paving slabs that were so smooth. I was scared too walk on the cracks because that's where the worms would hide, so I preferred to walk on the road. The roads all had drains where all the water would go when it rained. I always wondered where the drains took the water too, and why they never got full up.  

When we moved out of the little caravan into the new council house, it had electricity and gas, both very new concepts to me that I would later experiment with; to my detriment. No more oil lamps to fill or candles to burn, just a flick of a switch. A bigger surprise than that,  and something I had never seen before, a staircase! I must have walked up and down it a hundred times in the first day, counting to 13 every time. In Ireland we got our drinking water from the well at the bottom of the field, and our bath water came from the huge barrel that caught the rainwater from the house roof. It took a lot of pans of hot water to have a bath in that tin tub, and you had to sit well up the other end when the new pan of boiling water was poured in! But now, I could turn on a tap and get hot or cold water, as much as I needed. The hot water even ran around the house through pipes and big cast iron metal blocks, to heat the whole place. But the best was yet to come, and that was the toilet. In Ireland we had a plank of wood over a bucket, and because I kept falling through the hole in the plank, my Granddad made a special plank for me with a smaller hole. I would then have to wipe my bottom with an old newspaper, which made it all black and didn't feel very nice. Emptying the bucket at the end of the day was a horrible job and I never knew where my Granddad used to put it; probably on the vegetable plot. But in my house in England, I had a toilet with a seat on it, and when I had finished, I just pulled a chain and all the horrible stuff would disappear like magic. The toilet paper was a dream, so soft, and even though I did sometimes fall through the big hole in seat still, it was nothing like falling into that bucket back at my Grand parents house!

No more warm milk straight from the cows, a milkman would just deliver 3 bottles every morning before we got up. We would no longer have to kill my pets to have chicken for dinner, we could buy one from a shop, dead, plucked, gutted, stuffed and even cooked! Butter came from the shop too, in square blocks, wrapped in paper, but it didn't taste as good as it did straight from my Grandmothers churn.
The postman In Ireland, Tommy Doyle, would bring the mail into the house and sit down for a chat and a cup of tea, but not here. The mail just dropped through the letter box and we never knew the postman's name. A big lorry, full of really smelly men, turned up every week to take our rubbish away. They would collect the bin from the garden, put it back where it belonged and close the gate after them. If you wanted them to take away an old sofa or a leaking boiler, they would be happy to oblige. I never saw a refuse collector in Ireland, I guess because we grew everything that we ate, hence there were no tins or packaging. Then what we didn't eat, we either fed to the chickens or put on the compost pile. At night, in England, lights would come on in the street outside, which meant you couldn't see the stars so well, but it did mean it wasn't as scary.

No more peat from the bogs now, the coal-man would just fill our bunker up once a month, and he looked blacker than the black folk. In Ireland, so many people called at the house all the time, mainly family and friends, just to talk and see how we were. In England, most people who came to the house were selling something; like Mr Miller with his brushes, the Insurance Man, the Avon lady or the Rag & Bone Man. Then there was the Policeman who called around every now and then, just to check, 'what my parents were up to'. You see, they were classed as 'aliens', which I thought sounded funny, making me the 'son of the aliens'. Of course they weren't 'up to anything', but it gave all the neighbours the security of knowing that the government were keeping an eye on all known 'aliens'.

I can't stress how very difficult it was for my parents being foreign. It wasn't really until I grew up that I realised just how bad it had been for them, because they didn't really have any friends to speak of. My Dad's family were all dead after the war, except for an Aunt who lived in Brussels. My Mum's family never visited because my Dad just didn't like them. I'm not sure why, because at the time, I thought you couldn't find nicer people anywhere. I am still in touch with my Uncle Paddy, who is the best of the best people I have ever known. He is my Mother's older brother, but I always thought of him as more of a Dad. Him and his wife Mary have always made me feel like one of their children, and no matter what ups and downs I have been through, they have always welcomed me back. "Welcome home Daniel", is what they greet me with when I visit. I would like to pay tribute to them both, as two of the finest people one could ever come across in a lifetime.  

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