Ringing a bell
The Devonshire Arms Hotel stood nearly opposite the courthouse, at the west end of Main Street. It only stood to what we knew of reason that the two tall edifices should pay court to one another. Theirs were the signs of power, not only in their weighty names, but in their height and bulk, which made them every inch the offspring of the Big House. (And of course the place I’m speaking of, Lismore, possessed – or was possessed by? – no House bigger: the Duke of Devonshire had his Irish castle and estates on the fringe of town, down by the river, where the scenery began.) There they stood, two fine embodiments of the secular, separate but complicit, self-contained but complementary; all set in stone and to be looked up to by us youngsters. That was how things were.
Of the two, oddly, the courthouse seemed more open, more our own. That was not only because once a fortnight friends and neighbours were seen entering it to account for having no lights on their bicycles or for being derelict in the matter of a dog licence or for heaving forth one song too many after closing time. These cases were often as good as an episode of Mr Magoo. But the courthouse was also available for entertainment that was not inadvertent: whist drives, the odd hop (CÉILÍ AND OLD-TIME DANCING 8–12), a concert of a St Patrick’s night, featuring Phil Donovan whistling ‘In a Monastery Garden’ through his fingers. Such events drew a crowd, all dressed up and moving smartly, all exchanging little fillips of expectation, and relieving Justice, for a little while, of her frayed blindfold and severe sword.
The hotel was different. No sprightly demos ever there assembled. It never loaned itself to the ever-necessary raising of parochial funds. It had the permanent appearance of being in a brown study, inward and averse and altogether the courthouse’s enigmatic cousin, a kind of dowager, a kind of invalid, a kind of hostage. The courthouse might have its history. Somebody burned it, or half-burned it, I think, once upon a time; and it was just a stone’s throw from the road called Gallows Hill. But the fired-up arsonists were as anonymous as the swinging felons (God be merciful to them all, anyhow!), Chinese whispers from the tough old days of yore (now all over and done with, thanks be to God!). Whereas of course the hotel had remained intact and, as proof, had retained all names worth keeping, its own first, but others also. It was as if Thackeray had not only slept here, midst ‘the river and banks as fine as the Rhine’, but continued to sleep here. Virginia Woolf had reported chatting with the ‘Tchekhov innkeeper’. From such names the hotel attained the grandeur, class and timelessness which kept us at a distance. We could come to terms with the involuntary bed and board available at the courthouse. But what the hotel had to offer, and to whom, was pretty much beyond us.
Reposing in its visitors’ sublime, the hotel, all power subliminal, a house of strangers, ourselves included, was a version of the town’s overall oddity. Until the new man came, that is. That’s what we called the fellow in charge: the man. All others were boys, regardless of age.
The previous proprietor, who looms in memory as no more than a shapeless bundle of tweed, had one of those names we thought of as Protestant. King, Mills, Hunt, Godfrey; one of those rather rare names in that part of the world, solitary and strange, without the clannish commonality of an O or a Mac for footing. I don’t know what happened to him. He seemed to disappear. One day it was business as usual, the next I watched the grapevine flourish. In next to no time it sprang from dropped jaws, bloomed in narrowed eyes, grew strong along trellises of huddled shoulders, a rich convolvulus which everybody wanted a sprig and a scent of, and much suited to our climate.
I was learning to be on the qui vive for the latest news from the obscure but seemingly unavoidable world of adult disaster and inconstancy, that realm where the only change was a change for the worse, where families went to England forever and forever, where favoured sons drank the grocery, the drapery, the farm. Issues of such intimate foreignness were pushing my stamp album aside. The old man’s flight – and, so the whispers and the way the whisperers swatted me away said, his shame – made a fine addition to my collection. It happened to everyone, Protestant, hotelier and all – though I had no name for it, and if asked to picture it would probably have drawn a hefty hammer and sickle done in the deep, dark blue of a Sunday suit or a policeman’s uniform.
And perhaps it’s impossible for that unfortunate departed owner to be present to me now as anything more than a discarded overcoat, opaque and tainted, because the new man was such a shock. His name was Mr Baum, which sounded to us like he was saying ‘bomb’, and sure why wouldn’t he, falling out of a clear blue sky as he did. He was English, and looked it; at least in his wiry build and close-cropped hair he bore a strong family resemblance to such clear-cut embodiments of the breed as Rockfist Rogan in the Champion and Spike and Dusty in the Wizard. But his Englishness was of a kind we had little knowledge of, being without condescension, and speaking in clipped, bray-free tones, and always going about the place at a brisk, city pace. He might as well have been an out-and-out foreigner, a Norwegian or a Czech, not foreign in the endearing, vaguely lovelorn, sheep’s-eyed way in which we saw our fellow-communicants from France and Italy and Spain, the way of Marcellino, or Never Take No for an Answer, that edifying epic with a donkey in the lead, which miraculously packed the Palladium as full as The Song of Bernadette had. And he was foreign, too, because he didn’t seem to have a Christian name, but was always Mr Baum, and wouldn’t stop and chat or anything.
We were surprised that he – unlike anybody else we knew – seemed in any sort of hurry. Even the skin on him was not the same as ours, exactly. Sallowness and jowls tended to mark us out. His lean face had something raw or scraped about its ruddy cheeks, and there was no telling if we were to understand by it an aggressive form of freshness, perhaps, or the markings of a member of the brotherhood of close shaves. Maybe he was the kind of person the war had created, though lacking a moustache he couldn’t be a spiv. Maybe he was loaded to the gunwales with army gratuities and pensions, had taken his lumps and now had the lump sum to prove it. It could have been a dream that brought him our way. Trapped in a foxhole, he dreamt of being king of the castle, of having the kind of place for himself that is every Englishman’s proverbial home. And he was different enough from us to want his dreaming to pay off. Who could say? We didn’t know if he was one of a kind, attempting the impossible – a missioner for Atheists Anonymous – or if he would turn out to be a type, after all, and run true to form, like just another performer from the Joseph Conrad Strolling Players, an outfit which had already supplied our native place with a cast of half-baked majors and other sundry wallahs.
I chose not to believe the know-all who said the name was German and meant tree. To my mind, that contradicted the comic books, on the authority of whose illustrations I confidently read his physiognomy as being that of the right side, a winner, less gaudy than a Yank, perhaps, but nevertheless a bearer of the spoils of war, which very soon he would undoubtedly turn into the gifts of peace. Obviously I wasn’t paying enough attention to what was on the grapevine about Germans. By this time, they’d been settling in Ireland for some years. A few had even discovered our little valley, and were practising their innocent crafts – potting and cheese-making and rearing pheasants. So it wasn’t just a matter of their buying up Big Houses that were down on their luck. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Indeed, it was regarded, with a certain smugness, as not inappropriate; turnabout making for historical fair play. Better yet, though, these Johanns-come-lately were retreating from their own soiled landscapes by going back to the land. That was a sure sign that they were decent, respectable people. They even drove black Beetles, just like the clergy. No fear of them upsetting applecarts or rocking any of our little boats.
That, and the fact that they lived out the country, were the reasons that I had so little interest in them. I wanted change. It was 1959 already. I’d seen teddy-boys and even teddy-girls when on holiday in Dublin. ‘Teenager’, the new synonym for trouble and worry, had reached my ears. The Palladium screened East of Eden, and I hadn’t understood it; but Rebel Without a Cause I understood implicitly just from the title. And still the only sure promise of change was next year when the Pope was supposed to reveal the secret of Fatima. Informed local sources were betting even money that he was going to tell us either the date of the end of the world or that of Russia’s conversion. But that was no good to me. One of these revelations could easily entail the other, and then where would I be? Out of time. I wanted the type of change that would promise more time, give me my own time, real time. I wanted there to be time to go dancing before it was all over, time to think hard about how to put some sort of move on blonde June, the bank manager’s daughter. I was in a bit of a hurry myself. I was fourteen.
So, though I couldn’t say how or why, I was ready for Mr Baum. And he seemed ready for anything. In next to no time, he had sprung up before us as the fresh coat of paint, the menu with chicken and chips on it, the wedding breakfast for the pair from the side of the mountain, groom shaved to the pluck and squinting uneasily, hefty bride arrayed in complacent smiles and suit of piercing blue. The hotel began catering for tourists. Busfuls of Americans pulling in for twenty-minute teas quickly made the tweed-and-twin-set crowd in roadsters with GB stuck to their behinds a thing of the past, with their expectations of linen and dinner and touching of forelocks. It was as if everything began to open up once Mr Baum arrived. And from the intensive study that I began to make of him, it made perfect sense that he would think of tourists as his bread and butter, because being from God knows where himself made him kin to them, and he acted as if he had something of their freedom. He was spending his money and doing as he liked. Yet, as their host he was also superior to them. Close to, but above; just like His Grace in his castle was to the town. A duke remade, indeed, as I saw it; democratic, hospitable, hoisting the flag of colour and novelty, all for new norms, new forms, and apparently impervious to what anyone might say. A man after my own heart – not only my first stranger, which would have been reason enough for me to take him all in, but my first modern too.
Of course he caused talk. Not much, at first, and not all of it adverse, though the hotel’s new livery of cream stone and pillarbox-red trim did create a little ripple of unreadiness, so habituated were we to the Devonshire Arms’ sedateness, to its being a kind of asylum for varnish and flock wallpaper, the vaguely armorial weight and bearing of which seemed only proper to its name and standing. More might well have been made of the facelift, suggestive of rouge and powder as it was, but almost at once a brand-new sign appeared high up on the hotel’s west wall, large red letters affixed to a strapping metal frame stating plump and plain, ‘Lismore Hotel’. An eyesore! That was the first reaction. How dare some newcomer, hardly in the town five minutes by our historical clock, deface the hallowed wall? Then there was the objectionable idea of announcing who you were. That was the height of vulgarity, so it was; quite beneath the Devonshire Arms, which had no sign – one was supposed to know. Not to mention making the name-change so blatantly; what was it about this fellow and red? So went all the tutting and the clucking, in tones as scandalized as if a hitherto irreproachable dowager had suddenly taken to standing on the corner swinging her handbag and smoking a Woodbine.
There were ideological implications as well. The name of Devonshire was implicitly being suppressed. To forgo that connection was considered not only commercially foolhardy but also obscurely insulting, as if the famous name was all of a sudden utterly irrelevant. Mein host might be forgiven for not having had a proper regard for Lismore Castle and all the lands and all the history appertaining thereto. Only somebody to the manner born would really know how to look up to it. But he must have known of Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ place in Derbyshire. He must have heard of Cavendish, the family name. Were it not for names like that, small places such as ours would never be on the map. But now the little name, the homely name, was placed before the great, expunging it, denying it, eliminating that metaphysical association with power and glory which we were pleased to think distinguished us from every other little place. All that symbolic capital squandered, and by an Englishman at that. We were stunned, disoriented. A preview of the direst secret of Fatima would have left us at less of a loss.
Yes, the rot had set in. Or, to put it another way, the hotel thrived. The tourist industry had a lot to do with that, of course, though the more we saw of tourists the more disappointed we were. Their presence confirmed that to be is to be seen, and it was very welcome to appear to be some sort of designated somebody, a native, for example, recipient of waves and smiles and other gestures of approval. But being seen also entitled us to see. And all we saw were crocked hips and frail spouses, mummified complexions and star-spangled spectacle frames. These looked like people who weren’t sure what they were going through. They were modern only by being industrialized, and were otherwise entirely without novelty. Indeed, confirming their unexpected banality, they were guilty of the solecism of being old, the very thing the hotel was, at last, trying not to be. Looking and being looked at only reminded us of how great the gap was between us and the big world, the caravan of others’ lives. Yet, if it weren’t for the tourists the hotel would not have changed, it would have remained aloof, averse to vacationing and hospitality and summer. It might have prevented us from having our first full inspection of our own transients, the boys home from England for their fortnight’s summer holidays, for whom the hotel became a kind of halfway house.
Or at least the hotel bar did, if bar is the proper name for that oblong room with its high ceiling and spacious scattering of tables and chairs and light from four tall windows. It seemed to go so far out of its way not to be a pub – just a short jetty of zinc instead of a long counter, no groceries, no farmers, no constant mutter of scores and highlights, no pissing in the yard. I can’t remember one local who drank there regularly. But for returnees it was a very useful spot. It was a reason to go into the hotel, territory hitherto unknown and vaguely off-limits, but now a means of rising to the occasion of coming home. It fulfilled a promise some understandably might have made to themselves the first time they faced up Chapel Street to the station and the boat train. Let it now be known that they could afford to drink there, they’d earned it, a complicated statement for which words alone were both too elusive and too lapidary.
The younger boys often brought girls home with them, English girls, even, thin girls who staggered without ever having had a drink, because of their stiletto heels. They had squeaky laughs and backsides that seemed to move on hinges, wore frocks with big blue spots and hats the size of cartwheels. Amazing, the variety of God’s creatures, was the general reaction to these birds of passage – they seldom came a second time. For these couples, the hotel was a place where they felt understood. The understanding was spelled out in the names of the drinks they’d delighted in together on nights downtown in Coventry and Chiswick, and whose foreignness here made them feel closer still. Ordering scotch and ginger, rum and blackcurrant, brandy and peppermint, gin sling, g & t, now had some sort of ritual power, disclosing that sense, akin to a renewal of vows, which is the private reward for doing the classy thing. Not that these couples, or any returnees, shunned the pubs. They stood their nightly round a time or three, and were glad to do so. But dropping by the hotel was a good way to check the state of the nylons and the gaberdine after the shameless arms-around-each stroll to the nearest sheltered field.
Even the older boys, the ones on their own, came in for a quiet feed of stout, to mull over the previous evening or to contemplate the one ahead or to take a breather from the forced march they’d once more made up into Shrough or Araglen, through old familiar woods and fields and memories, and the silent spaces left by absent friends. They wore clean clothes every day. They sat near a window for a bit of heat, back to the street, looking in. The smoke of their many cigarettes hung constantly about them like the aura of who they greyly were in England.
Sometimes, after their third or fourth bottle, they asked us if we’d like a glass of lemonade and who our fathers were, looking at us, or rather looking through us, out into some unfathomable distance. Mysterious familiars, intimate strangers. We shied away, polite but a bit confused, there being no way of telling whether it was a type or a man who was talking to us, whether he was seeing his past or we our future.
Like many another confusion in that undemanding time, that unassertive place, this one was of no immediate concern to us. What mattered was – look! – we were in the hotel, as good as any tourist, even if more out of place. Nobody said boo to us. We went into the bar. There were lights on in the middle of the day – a row of flesh-pink little bulbs edging glass shelves chock-a-block with bottles. Drink had more colours than the chemistry lab, it seemed, and the colours beamed and winked at us in the biggest mirror we had ever seen. Now we were prowling, we believed, within sniffing distance of that troublesome though most excellent trinity we’d been warned about by Father Bing Crosby himself in that alluringly rowdy hymn of the abstainer, ‘Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women’. We didn’t know what to do about such enticements yet, or ever, really, though as it turned out what we did during that summer holiday was to start smoking regularly, and combing back our hair. Just to be in the neighbourhood was thrill enough, and we trod warily for fear of disturbing the oasis and that mirage in the mirror.
Seeking out the kitchen just for a look, to see the size of it, the shine of it, the cocky cooks and saucy scullions walloping the pots in it, was no temptation. Going upstairs to race along the corridors, to gawk at a room or at a maid, to pretend that there were ghosts, was beyond the last thing on our minds. If we were caught we would be banished ignominiously, banned for good and maybe told on at home – and all for what, a new angle on the courthouse? It was quite by accident that I saw a commercial traveller paw the front of Lily’s blouse. She was the receptionist, almost thirty, all girlhood gone. The lines at the sides of her mouth were already tugging downwards slightly, and she kept her eyes open in a way that was familiar to us, to be watchful, not because she would see anything new. And I remember, as she hastily redid her buttons, how she hissed at him – ‘Joseph!’ – and I can still see the complicated smile her thin lips gave him, tolerant but loathing. Lily lived with her mother. Later, they went to live somewhere else.
As well as the savvy caution that we thought it proper to bring to a corner of the town that had seemed to be forever alien, not to mention our excruciating sensitivity to all questions of territory, borders, access and trespass, there was another very simple reason not to go beyond the bar: nothing upstairs or downstairs could improve on what we found there. Mr Baum had seen to that. He’d seen us coming. Long before Irish pubs were places to play games, we had a dartboard. The darts were kept behind the zinc in a tankard embossed with crown and roses, a Coronation keepsake, probably, and if he was around Mr Baum let us have them just for the asking. If he wasn’t there, we could nip in and get them, and if he came back and saw us playing – or rather saw us halt, arms frozen, jaws dropping – he just went about his business as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. We looked at one another, grinning: ah, he was a proper gent, that Mr Baum.
The only thing he didn’t have was chalk to keep score, and the excitement of simply launching the arrows at the board as forcefully as possible distracted us from the mental arithmetic necessary to compete properly, so that everybody suspected everybody else of cheating, making it impossible to play to win, and besides we weren’t sure what the various circles on the board meant, apart from the bull’s-eye. We didn’t care. Soon what had never been a game dissolved deliciously from the heat of liberating moment into chaos, childish and hysterical, a strange music of our whoops and shrieks accompanying each solid whap! of the darts hitting home. There was a board of rings as well, but some of us had got that game back in the days of Santa Claus, so we pretended that we had outgrown it. The splatter of the rubber rings on the linoleum floor was a cissy sound compared with the beat of the arrows.
Better even than the darts were the machines. The cranes: that was what we called them. No doubt they sported real names, such as Treasure Hunt or Jewel Box or Diamond Mine, and their nether parts, containing the machinery, were resplendent in the glitzy artwork of comic-book POW! and carnival WOW! – imprimaturs of happiness in themselves. On top was a plain glass case, inside of which was the business end. This consisted of a jib with a claw attached, and by putting a penny in the slot a limited amount of time was purchased during which the jib and claw could be manipulated to fish for fortune down at the bottom of the glass case. Paydirt was made up of finger-length, fluorescent-pink naked plastic dolls, leprechauns the same size, naturally, but decked out in turf-coloured trews and viridian weskits, sedans the size of a man’s thumbnail that were all slipperiness and shine, and little oval sweets such as sheep might leave behind if they’d dined on rainbow. All cheaper than dirt, all extraordinarily claw-resistant, but every one a glittering prize, the hero’s portion for besting the machine. The mechanism ticked, cynical and dry, as it did the gulls’ bidding. We bent the waist as the jib descended, we squirmed in agony as the claw flirted with a ping-pong ball, we pawed the glass, we cursed like troopers. They were great, these first lessons in desire, with Tantalus our mentor. Groping by remote control in an aquarium of stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily be seen dead with – this was the life!
It was only when the hotel got a jukebox that I realized how long I’d been waiting for it.
I remember the poles pungent with creosote being hoisted at street corners and the giant spools of line and the multicoloured sleeving of the wires and the swagger of the men from Tipperary and suchlike faraway places climbing the poles in their special spiky boots and the unfamiliar air of stir and purpose. What a secular feast-day for blessed electricity all that big, powerful, arcane work seemed; and quite right, too, because this was a godly element, without a doubt, combining the instantaneous with the constant and illumination with the possibility of being burned.
I don’t remember our house being hooked up; in my oldest memories we had a plug-in radio, not a battery one. But obscurely fond family reminiscences of Lord Haw-Haw suggest that we did have a radio in the pre-mains era, and I suppose our family too must have had its pre-war Dancing at Lughnasa radio days. Radio batteries, which I recall other people having, looked intriguing and were described as ‘wet’. They were long rectangles of sheer, thick, green-tinted glass full of some sort of aqueous solution called acid, the very stuff in just the very chalices from which one could imagine wireless, electricity’s brainy offspring, to emerge. Yet, just like everything to do with miracles, there was something sickly to wet batteries; look at Lazarus, look at Bernadette Soubirous … They had to be taken up to Feeney’s garage to be charged, which was a chore and a bore, and had a hazy though unmistakable resemblance to poor people’s taking of tins up to the convent for a sup of soup. Electricity available on tap was the equivalent of having your groceries delivered, just like the gentry.
Feeney’s also had mains radios for sale. Carrying home a big box with Bush or Pye on it broadcast buying into the modern world. And it brought home the modern world in an unexpected rush, filled invisible streets with compulsively loquacious strangers. There was an air of the circus, an air of the mission. Because mains radio had a lot more power than battery, there was a lot more stuff, a lot more clearly. I only had to twirl a knob to get an urgent-sounding earful of languages without limit, beginning with the languages of English. No radio voice had a Lismore accent; they were all foreigners. That was part of the excitement. Yet speak as those burnished vowels and strict-tempo syllables might of Dr Mussadegh and Panmunjom and worldly purposes beyond me, I got a great kick out of pretending I was necessary to the whole operation: if I and ignorant people like me did not tune in, those well-groomed tonsils would be left up in the air, talking to themselves. I didn’t have to understand what was being said, but I had to attend – just like Mass (the correct verb for attendance at which was ‘to hear’).
And just like Mass, the radio relied on a tried and trusted repertoire of formalities and formulae. Signature tunes, sportscasters’ clichés, the impersonal hiccup of the Greenwich time signal made the comforting medium the plausible message. Even all that incomprehensible whickering on the short wave was entertaining, honk of French, lisp of Spanish, gush of Dutch, the wheedling whistles out of nowhere, the slightly spooky heavy breathing of white noise … And is there any Fifties radio-head who doesn’t hold in memory dear that great BBC set-piece, the Shipping Forecast? Litany of risk. Blazon of portents. Epic of jeopardy. Seedbed of yarns. The first thing to resemble a poem I’d heard coming out of the world itself and not from chapel or book. Trawling the frequencies was almost as much fun as diving for treasure with jib and claw; all that was missing was the tension, the awful want.
To ride the wavelengths, though, I had to wait until the grown-ups were out either praying or drinking. When they were home I had to put up with family entertainment, meaning the BBC Light Programme, which we received as clear as a bell at 1500 on the long wave. ‘Received’ – that was what we did at Holy Communion. Now there was electrical communion. It too had the invisibility indispensable to a sense of the miraculous. The same only different. The dial was my own private paraclete. Was that right? I didn’t know how to think, or what kind of faith it was permissible to place in the world, realm of desire and transience as it was. The only words available to plumb experience came from our religion. If those yardsticks of significance did not apply, the rest was silence. Except to my mind the silence could be broken, now, by pleasure. I didn’t know much about pleasure, but I knew what I liked, and there was nothing Light about it. And there was even less for me on Athlone, our own wee national station, apart from the undoubtedly exhilarating roar of sport on a Sunday.
My uncle thought it only natural for Britannia to rule the airwaves. He had worked in England during the war and, despite being a fervent republican, suffered cultural withdrawal on his return. This he treated with regular doses of crooners and comedians, mainly the latter, though what he found funny in them I had no idea. Still, thinking it would be cool and that I’d earn approval, I sought acquaintance with Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey and the rest of my uncle’s old chinas. There was no point in listening to them, because I couldn’t understand the accents, their allusions were beyond me, and it was annoying to see my uncle sitting there, taking it all in and grinning smugly. (How was I to know it was ‘china’ as in ‘china plates’, meaning ‘mates’?) So I turned to Radio Fun, a comic consisting of cartoon strips devoted to these apparent stars, one of a fleet of tenders newly launched to ferry everybody out to that wonderful luxury liner, Showbiz, flagship of peacetime and of never having had it so good. But, shorn of radio’s vividness and reduced to black and white, these comics became toneless, their scenarios kids’ stuff, their patter a matter of puns. I left my uncle to himself, to his workers’ playtime. I had hopes of higher things, of something I had never heard the like of, not knowing what it was until the Goons came along. Not that they were any easier to understand – far from it. But at least they were more like radio itself, sounded right at home in it, with their great range of voices and peculiar sound effects and narratives as anarchic as a sweep across the dial.
Crooners were another story. They were on much more often; family entertainment was evidently unthinkable without them. Syrupy, anodyne, lachrymose, constipated, it would not have surprised me had their names been Aspro or Scott’s Emulsion or another of the brave new world’s brand-new patent medicines – so popular, so insipid to taste. Crooners turned my stomach. It was clear to me that music had to be the high point of radio. Speech was all very well. But there was no shortage of it. Music, on the other hand, had no other function but to raise the tedious day, the listless hour, the dull perspective to a sweeter plane. Instead we just had such puerile ditties as ‘The Happy Wanderer’, which would have been all right if, say, tourists sang it as the bus pulled away; but then ‘my knapsack on my back’ would have to be rewritten as ‘my handbag on my lap’. We had ‘Little Donkey’ and we had ‘Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea.’ We had orchestras coming out our ears: Semprini, Mantovani, George Melachrino. Strings with everything, piercing, chill, the impersonal sound of the Cold War humming at its air-conditioning mission.
More disappointing still, this was exactly the kind of music that Irish singers took up. And not the familiar all-mouth-and-trousers tenors, either, but modern singers, Ruby Murray, for example. She was from Belfast, but not to worry, she was a star. What did she do? ‘Softly, Softly’. I squirmed. I winced. But this was the sort of music with which the country was inescapably associated. ‘How Are Things in Glocamorra?’ wasn’t just a song title; people used the words as a friendly greeting, as though not merely the soppy tune but the lyric’s hopelessly mistaken geography didn’t matter in the slightest. Sure wasn’t any sign of recognition at all from the big world as welcome as the flowers in May? ‘Oh To Be in Doonaree’ was virtually swoon-producing. Chests swelled at ‘It might have been in County Down’, a line from ‘Around the World’, although in this case the swelling was augmented by the fact that it was that grand son of Erin, Bing Crosby, who was doing the honours.
Bing was our pride and joy. Bing was the image of someone whole and entire. He played a priest in the pictures, a priest who would sing, a priest who was popular. Who could ask for anything more? And he was a wonderful whistler, our own most popular form of music-making. Needless to say, I made a point of thinking him intolerable, insufferable, unctuous, a peddler of bromides. And slow – God! Dead slow. Not that anybody wanted to know. Everybody was listening not to me but to Bing duetting with Grace Kelly in ‘True Love’ from High Society (both titles fabulous, each obviously entailing the other). That was the song with the fine Catholic line about ‘you and I have a guardian angel’. The Pope himself was probably whistling it, partial though he must have been to ‘Oh Mein Papa’. It was all so bland, so flavourless, just like the things I had to eat because they would do me good. I didn’t want to have good done to me. I wanted to feel good on my own account. I wanted chips from the chip-shop with lashings of brown sauce, scoop upon scoop of strawberry ripple in a tall glass, sausages bursting smokily out of their skins. Since there had to be new machines – that was pretty much a law of nature, as far as I could see – there had to be new tastes, new sounds, new energies to go with them. And there were. They came in the dark from Luxembourg, 208 on the medium waveband.
No other station would give rock ’n’ roll a home. Before Luxembourg, listening was an aggravated version of going to the pictures. One of the inescapable parts of the movie experience was noticing where the film had been cut. The lurches and hiccups of the molested frames told us that the censored was the most important part, the part to take personally. It was the same with rock ’n’ roll. Official silences from Athlone and the BBC only heightened the pitch of need. Not only did the Palladium, our local cinema, decline to screen Rock Around the Clock; I doubt Athlone let on to know of its existence, an official posture with which even innocents like me were quite familiar. At first, the BBC refused to play it and for the longest time had a very milk-and-water attitude to it. Little Radio Luxembourg was the lone evangel, the Station of the Stars. Once more, the best of goods were seen to come in small parcels (it was the oft-repeated moral of the struggle of our own fair native land against the big noises). I was thrilled by the marvellous aptness of these ridiculed and outcast sounds finding shelter in a Duchy which, for all I knew, was smaller than the Duke of Devonshire’s lands and properties. There at the stroke of a gong – Lux’s time signal, striking to me in the delightful daring of its indifference to ecclesiastical resonances – the pulse of all my tomorrows was to be found.
Brave little Luxembourg, vibrant little Luxembourg. I had visions of a musical Ruritania, resembling the set of The Student Prince on the outside, but with interiors where the studios were, all plastic and chrome, telephones and turntables and a new breed of man, the disc jockey, one of the few entitled to be called Johnny (though in fact none of them were), got up in my sartorial heart’s desire, multicoloured shirt and tight trousers. Why couldn’t we be modern like that? By right – that is, according to historical precedent – we should have been. Who better than we to be transformed into that parish of America which rock ’n’ roll was making of the Grand Duchy? Everybody knew we’d always had old buildings. Surely all those ruined round towers, clapped-out belfries and tottering turrets of ours were just the thing to stick an aerial up on, and away we go into the twentieth century at last. Now we had the electricity as well. But no. It was like we were still stuck in our neutrality, while places that had hardly ever been on the map before, whose sons were never mayor of Boston, which in all likelihood had turned a deaf ear to the Bing-bong bells of St Mary’s, were reaping the one reward of peace that to me seemed worth anything. Luxembourg was more to the fore than we were! It even tried to help us to get with it, devoting half an hour a week of its precious air to ‘Irish Requests’. But instead of availing ourselves of this golden opening to put our best modern foot forward, we just let the whole world know how backward we were, the height of our daring and hipness Lonnie Donegan doing ‘Nobody Loves Like an Irishman’. Oh, I was fed up of we! And I swore an oath that if we didn’t want to move with the times, then I’d do it myself.
But life was hard. The dusty summertime blues were all about us, giving us nothing but time on our hands. The Luxembourg signal came in clearest after nightfall, and often I wouldn’t be allowed up after ten, which was when the shows with all the latest came on. Missing those was woeful torture. Missing the science-fiction serial Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, and instead having mouthy American preachers coming in loud and clear with the low-down on The World Tomorrow, was a sick joke. And most mortifying of all, on Sunday nights I was always packed away upstairs well before the Top Twenty came on at eleven. This was the show that everybody listened to, even those whom I casually despised for their lack of passion for the music. This was the show that stretched the weekend out as far as it possibly could go and then brought it to a climax by playing the Number 1, a conclusion which so very satisfyingly combined attainment and completeness. And to confirm the show’s high ritual significance, it had numbers. Everything important had numbers – history, sports events, sermons. Here were numbers arranged to satisfy my more than musical hunger for what was new. My wide-eyed interest in newcomers. My pleasure in the prospect of an order whose rationale was change, just like the radio dial’s. Here, harmoniously, was a blueprint of Utopia. A hand of cards invariably playing out right. A shipping forecast promising always fair weather.
Except that I seldom got to hear it. So, with a sense of harking to a higher calling, though with a certain trepidation too, I realized that some suffering was required if I was to live up to my desires, and that meant fighting, because only fighting made things serious. I armed myself with the cold shoulder, the sullen lip, the rolling eye, the freighted sigh, the dispiriting yet affirming awareness that what the songs said was true: they didn’t understand. Against me was arrayed predictably sensible nonsense about me needing my sleep, as if my days, my whole way of life, weren’t hostage to Morpheus; also concerning the proprieties of ‘jungle music’, as though I, or my antagonists themselves, for that matter, were naturally to the foxtrot born; and about taste as well, as in ‘Turn off that bloody noise!’ Every once in a while they would let me stay up, particularly if they had visitors in, when allowing me to have the radio on low ensured that I wouldn’t hear the grapevine being manured. But mostly grown-ups were guardians of the peace. They knew best. I knew, however, that my fight was for my independence, which I easily identified with the rights of small nations (to be heard).
Neither side had much of an idea what was going on. It would take years to get even a glimmering. They would have to think of me as a teenager, a species as new and perhaps as unwanted as a disc jockey, and a damn sight more difficult to turn on and off. I would have to learn that they knew that songs were simple because pretty much everything else was not – knew it and found it hard to bear, so willing was the spirit and so weak the flesh. We never did get all the way there. So all we could do as our differences exasperated us was argue about bedtimes and about who was sitting where in relation to the radio, about why couldn’t I read a book and be private in an approved way, about why wouldn’t I think of going out in the air and playing like I was a child, knowing no other way to speak of the shifts in time and space that we believed we wanted yet didn’t know how to feel at home in.
The hotel had steps leading up to a large glassed-in porch, then tall, wide double doors, and then, instead of a lobby proper, just a hallway leading to the reception desk. Halfway down that hall was where the jukebox was parked. It sat back in a niche. But at the same time it stuck well out. It was a hoarding, a billboard, a sign saying ‘Lismore Hotel’. Nobody who had the slightest contact with the place, from plumber’s mate to Dublin number-plate, could fail to notice this ultimate expression of Mr Baum’s brazen way, making its business everybody else’s business. Which, to me, was only proper order. Everybody should have to recognize what a huge advertisement for cool this was, and should have to adjust their gait accordingly if they wanted to pass around the gaggle of us clogging up the hallway, shaking our legs and snapping our fingers and looking at our reflections in the music machine’s glass superstructure.
I made it plain to the very few willing to listen that of course I had seen jukeboxes before. The ice-cream parlours all along O’Connell Street in Dublin, where my aunt Peggy took me for a Knickerbocker Glory, showing me a bit of life for being a good boy, had jukeboxes, and sometimes she would give me a tanner to play something. She herself, she confided, had never properly recovered from ‘Blue Tango’, or rather from her inability to hear it often enough, so she could understand, even if, as an adult, she could not condone, my own obsession with the horny wailing of ‘Diana’ or the siren-like excesses of the falsetto on ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’ by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. But those jukeboxes in Cafolla’s were no match for Mr Baum’s able-bodied bombshell. It wasn’t just a matter of size, though it was important that what I thought of as my one was bigger. Those Dublin ones also had a vaguely ecclesiastical air about them. They had glass façades of deep purple and midnight blue (their colours intoned the idiom of their product; the Church went in for exactly the same sort of thing). And their brown upright bodies with narrow, rounded shoulders made them look like miniature confession boxes.
My jukebox had a homemade look. Its top stuck out at an obtuse, modernistic angle, instead of fitting flush with the underneath part. The top was all plain glass, and imagination requires that I’m correct in my memory that its lower half was in the hotel’s trademark red and cream. It had a sort of kneeling aspect, low on its back legs and thrusting its front forward, as though offering. Altogether, it gave the impression of being a splendidly refashioned, streamlined variation on the breakfront china cabinets that were the centrepieces of all our front rooms. And, confirming its modernity, its design was essentially the same as that of the now-abandoned crane machine.
Any resemblance to that thrice-accursed and indifferent penny-gobbler was, however, skin-deep and entirely coincidental. The jukebox was not just the ultimate in technology, a domesticated Sputnik, smoothing the way for new modes of daytime spaciness, opening a way of touching the stars. Where it really proved itself was by turning all that was frustrating about the crane into the last word in gratification. And it was impossible to tire of seeing that process of conversion in action. What happened was a kind of inverted Punch and Judy show. Once the sixpence was swallowed and the selection buttons punched the turntable took off, its action a bit blind and manic as it drove itself along a track. It was plain it meant business. And as it drove it made the same sound as the mocking crane. But now the sound was the electrifying ticking of a burning fuse, the turned-on click of desire’s magnetic rosary. Then, though, when it reached its destination, the turntable, instructively enough, appeared to get a grip of itself; out came its arm gently and gently settled the selection on its lap, hole over stubby thing. There it rocked as the record rolled, swaying in the same way as we had noticed poor young women walk (the ones not wearing corsets), swaying as we pictured ourselves swaying on the ecstatic dancefloor of love, or whatever the correct term was for the everything and absolute that we were, surely, rapidly approaching, soon, soon, when our own needles would be sporting in the groove.
I thought I was modern, but this beat the band altogether. I watched besotted. Later there would be radiograms and stereo systems and all that the home-owner, the record-collector, the fetishist, could want. There may even have been one or two gramophones in town already, though who might own them I had no idea, not anybody I knew, certainly, but people who could afford to travel now and then to wherever records were sold. There was nowhere to buy them within thirty miles of us. And supposing there were, and supposing I was invited to listen, there would still be the hallway and its polish smell, the parlour and its mahogany gleam, the sense of rare occasion and of patronage, and some alien adult pretending to be friends – not to mention a taste in music in which all that prissy politesse was reproduced. The jukebox’s was the only reproductive system that beguiled me. It was large. It was loud. It was vulgar. It was in the hotel. And it was as if it didn’t just produce music and pleasure, but that the pregnant, inscrutable and favourably aligned conditions in which music and pleasure gestate were also held in fee by this miracle of servo-mech.
We got in people’s way, and our attempts at jiving often became jostling. When Freddy Cannon went ‘Whoo!’ – like an Irishman – in ‘Tallahassee Lassie’, we disturbed the peace by, naturally, going ‘Whoo!’ along with him. Lily the receptionist drew the line with lips pressed tight and angry. But Mr Baum never said a word to us, either good or bad. I suppose, after all, we were just one more aspect of what he meant by meaning business, and had no more reality for him than what was represented by the going rate – one for sixpence, three for a shilling. To us, an expensive item enough; but what interest did Mr Baum need to have in who paid or where the money came from? And, for our part, we didn’t think of pleasure being a business. Being used to hierarchy, we did have some dim sense that somebody supplied the machine and the records; that a man came to change the records and take the sixpences away; that just as this man was above Mr Baum there was another man above this man who sat waiting for the records and the sixpences; and there were probably countless other sitting men superior to this man who sat, all the way up to Bill Haley himself.
Some sort of reversal of donating to the Black Baby box was in effect here, but we didn’t dwell on it. Business, for us, was limited to securing a regular supply of sixpences. There being no lawns to mow, few cars to wash and fewer whose owners wished them washed, the summertime blues weighed especially heavily on our pockets. Sometimes one of the boys in the bar would put in a shilling, especially if he had a girlfriend. It was, we thought, a handy way of treating us without the bother of talking or being sociable in the ordinary way, and if he wanted to override our suggestions and play Pat Boone numbers that was a price we were quite prepared to pay. Sometimes, too, I would strike it rich if some older boy dropped in at home to visit. I would be on best behaviour, run to put on the kettle when commanded and be modesty itself when told by the visitor, as he left, how big I was getting, at which point he would slip me a two-bob piece maybe, never letting it be said that he didn’t know the right thing to do and at the same time letting it be known that he was doing grand beyond in Leicester or in Luton. Mainly, though, we begged. We lugged the tea and sugar, the rashers and the Rinso home from the Co-op and whined for something from the change. We went to relatives on Sunday, where an auntie, addled by the sherry, mistakenly handed us a half-crown.
We didn’t care to what depths we stooped as long as we had the price of a spin. For some, even, the music didn’t matter. And I could see their point, in a way; the jukebox’s repertoire was not all my heart desired either. It leaned rather too heavily to the Pat Boone side of things – not a disaster, of course, and better than Bing by far, but there was something fatally soppy and croonerish about him all the same. There were always too many novelty records – ‘Witch Doctor’, ‘Purple People Eater’, the complete Chipmunks; fine at first, then soon unbearable. I was a snob. I also couldn’t stand English cover versions of American hits, inclusion of a whole array of which I thought to be a strangely misguided act of loyalty on Mr Baum’s part, and I wondered how he failed to see that Americans were superior by far, and that the new thing now, the great thing that the jukebox seemed absolutely made for, was to give England the go-by.
English records sounded so clean, the voices bright and eager and doing their best to pronounce the lyrics properly, and the studios were obviously using fine equipment in excellent conditions; everything perfectly balanced, but missing the point – the point being, as American records so blatantly made clear, to play to beat the bland. There was something winningly do-it-yourself about them, their atmosphere, their texture, their informality, their lack of balance, the absence of strings and the beat’s rude candour. Pianos were given a persistent hammering, as though to knock the politeness out of them; no longer were they to be thought prize pieces of family property. Saxophones contributed honking nose-blow and rasping fart, delighting schoolboys no end. Electric Guitars! I thought in awe, smitten, beholding the revolution. Yet their sound was very much like that of somebody hurrying home with a bag containing a dozen stout. And underneath it all, the indispensable smack of door-slamming, sledgehammering, heart-thumping drums. Plus, up above, the voices.
For all their entertaining subversion of the domestic and diurnal, the instrumental sounds were as nothing to the growls and echoes, muddy undertones, indistinctnesses and insinuations of the vocals. The Elvises and the Little Richards who delivered them were not what we called singers – or rather ‘singer’ did them a disservice, an injustice. It was an ass-backward, street-corner, shrugging and scratching defiance of an approved approach, this wayward and parodic vocalese; an attitude, a – God between us and all harm! – Weltanschauung. Its earthiness, the spontaneity of its yelping and warbling, its disinclination to stick to the strict melodic line, was more performance than singing, more sound than song, and best of all, the evidently unbalanced characters who gave their all to this swallowed their vowels, dropped final ‘g’s’ and used ‘ain’t’, cropping and eliding what they delivered as freely and as disrespectfully as we did ourselves. Not to mention the singing in tongues that went on – ‘Awopbopaloobop!’ and the chicks on the backing track, awwing and ooing in a language all their own. And no wonder.
These galvanic, accelerated sounds felt oddly familiar, as though they were already in us and now were eligible for release. And it was oddly easy to feel close to the performers, too. New as they were, I was sure I knew the type. Fellows from the back of the class, from the back of beyond, from a sleepy nowhere like our own, rough and ready, some of them, others short and sharp, loud-mouthed fellows who weren’t entirely in control, with something of the beaming, inebriated ardour I’d noticed in lads going to a dance. They were expectant, they were optimistic. Theirs was the sound of not giving a continental damn. Theirs was the after-hours shout in the street. Little Richard sang that it was Saturday night and he’d just got paid and he was going to rip it up. Everyone we knew who worked got paid on Saturday and went downtown armed unknowingly with the song’s sentiments; the older people had an Irish word for it: spleodar. And the performers went by their nicknames, their pet names, their short names – Fats, Buddy, Frankie; lots of locals were styled exactly the same way. Larry Williams carried on at a fierce rate about ‘Bony Maronie’. We heard it as Mona Maloney, laughing but deep down not altogether surprised. Mona lived in Parks Road, and Blueberry Hill was that girl from Tallow. Chuck Berry chimed in to let us know that he too knew us well, with his ‘No Particular Place to Go’ (‘Up in the morning and out to school …’). My stint as an altar boy had only recently ended, and I still had all the responses at my fingertips. But what were they compared to ‘Tutti Frutti’ – presumably the Latin for ice-cream, or maybe for something even softer, sweeter?
I learned all the tunes, the words, the middle eights, the instrumental breaks (would anybody care to hear me mouth the guitar solo from ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’?). Here at last was something I could call my own, worship and obey. I understood that when Eddie Cochran went ‘C’mon Everybody’, he meant me. Every three-minute spin enveloped me with what felt like understanding. I let go and entered. And was entered.
Lost in the music as I liked to be, I thought it was the only thing. But it was only the beginning. It gave us all the itch to be performers. We wanted style with everything, and began to wear the collars of our shirts turned up. Our future was apparently being built around such sartorial assertions. That’s what it said in the papers. Tonsorial challenges would also be our lot. It was clear that we would suffer. Our bigger brothers in the cities were already suffering. Thanks to them, we were prepared. We were learning that the modern was the realm of the outlaw. Nothing can happen unless a rule is broken.
But that was for later. That was the last shout of our fathers, the first refusal to go to confession and communion. For the time being, it felt bold enough to be ready, willing and able to pay. Dig the music in our various ways as we might, what gave us real intimacy with the machinery of pleasure was having the money to choose. That was the first time anything like that had happened to us. Let songs sing of love. The incitement we felt was to power (though maybe, baby, power and love some day could be the same; not a few songs sketched a vaguely egalitarian utopia where the deprived would be reconciled with his or her opulent opposite, and where the economy would be based exclusively on the circulation of credit notes marked ‘always’ and ‘forever’). There wasn’t one of us who didn’t get a brazen, cocky fillip when he slid his sixpence in the slot. Pressing the buttons was like being in some sort of adult sweet-shop. We were able to have a piece of the action, just as our parents were able to buy pints or hats with feathers in them. What we bought went to our heads as well, only ours was obviously a far superior mood-enhancer, and not only because the rows it caused at home were nothing like as serious as those brought on by booze or millinery. For some more than others, though for all of us to varying degrees, that was what the jukebox was really all about: not the shimmy or the shake but being all brash and squandering, acting out a version of swaggering through swinging saloon doors and throwing a ringing coin down on the counter. The jukebox was the call of the world. From it came our first gestures in maleness. From it we took our first steps in leaving.
And then we did leave. We all left. Pete went to Sparkhill, John to Solihull, Liam to the Merchant Navy as a radio officer, one Paddy to Hammersmith, another Paddy over and back. We had no property, we had no trade. We had only our schooling, so we had to move. That was the way it was. Some of us fell among books, others among bottles. Lily from reception moved and took her mother with her. Mr Baum left too. I don’t know why. He could have failed, I suppose, but he didn’t seem the type. Maybe it was just time to move on, move on down the line, like the Drifters, like Johnny Cash; get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island … I was elsewhere when it happened: Earl’s Court, Leamington Spa, Poughkeepsie.
Yet, for all that, I also see it’s six o’clock still, and that it always will be. The small street remains huddled under a low sky. Bob Allison has his shutters up, and so has Cronie Gorman and the Co-op and Jackie Scanlan; all the shops are shuttered, as though these are dangerous times. The pubs are open, of course. A kind of a rusty tang of drink breathes out of their dim doorways as I dance past, stepping impeccably over Patsy-pop wrappers, dog dirt, skiffs of dust. I’m late for tea and there will undoubtedly be words, but I will hardly hear them.
‘Where were you?’
‘What were you doing?’
The Angelus rolls out across the rooftops, all gloomy pomp and solemn summons. I hardly hear it.
I’m with Chuck Berry way down in Louisiana, sitting in the sunshine, sipping something sweet. Johnny B. Goode is tuning up. He can play guitar just like ringing a bell.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 9 Winter 2002–3