Lust for Leaks

Neal Ascherson

  • The Broken Boy by Patrick Cockburn
    Cape, 312 pp, £15.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 224 07108 4

In the early summer of 1956, an epidemic of poliomyelitis broke out in the city of Cork. It was not unexpected. The Irish medical authorities had noted the two-year gap between previous outbreaks, and were ready for 1956 to be a polio year. ‘Ready’ rather overstates it. Some hospitals had been designated as polio reception centres, but no attempt was made to import and use the newly released Salk vaccine, which was soon to obliterate the disease in the Western world. As for the treatment of those who caught it, the doctors knew of none that would make much difference. (In this book, Patrick Cockburn concludes that Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year still offers the soundest advice for those caught in epidemics: run away.)

But although this was not Cork’s first epidemic, it was the most vicious. The death toll seems to have been relatively low, as it usually is with polio: the damage is reckoned in the spoiled bodies of the young rather than in mass graves. Nearly 550 patients, most of them children, were brought into hospital presenting fever and paralysis within less than four months. Behind that total is the fact that polio, one of the most infectious illnesses known to science, attacks a hundred victims for every one it brings down with visible symptoms. The majority have immunity, acquired in infancy, which allows them to throw the virus off or to experience the disease so lightly that they are unaware of it – and unaware of the lasting damage the virus may have done to the motor neurones which control their muscles. In Cork, a compact city of some 75,000 inhabitants, the total of those affected must have been at least 50,000. And all those attacked became for a time carriers of the infection.

In August that year, the journalist Claud Cockburn and his wife, Patricia, decided to leave London and move back to Ireland for the summer, to their house near her family home at Youghal in County Cork. They had heard about the polio outbreak, but guessed that everyone was exaggerating the scale of it. Anyway, their three boys would be safe enough out in the country.

It wasn’t until they came off the boat at Cork that they noticed how empty the shops and streets were. Visitors had stopped coming, while on trains other passengers huddled away from Corkonians or wrote letters demanding that the city be quarantined. In spite of this, Claud Cockburn continued to travel through Cork on his way to and from London; there were pieces to be written and a toppling overhang of bills to be dealt with. Some time in September, he developed a splitting headache and a pricking sensation in his fingertips. He thought nothing of the symptoms, and they passed off. Pretty certainly, he had been visited by the virus and now unwittingly carried it to his own children.

His youngest son, Patrick, was six years old. On 30 September, the boy woke up sweating and with a fever. By that night, miserable and bewildered, he was in St Finbarr’s, an old Cork workhouse now converted to a polio reception hospital for the duration of the epidemic. A few days later, Patrick was joined in hospital by his nine-year-old brother, Andrew. Their older brother, Alexander, had felt the same headache and pricking in the fingers as their father but, like him, did not fall ill.

Andrew seemed at first to be severely affected in his muscles, but eventually emerged with no apparent damage beyond a weak toe. Patrick got the worst of it. A lively, inquisitive, active little boy, he was left unable to use his legs and was eventually brought back to Youghal in callipers. There followed years of operations, exercises, hard work and mental endurance. Physically, Patrick made a considerable recovery, but not a complete one. He became a journalist like both his parents and both his brothers, working in Washington and Moscow and covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now serving the Independent, he is renowned as the sharpest and most formidably informed foreign correspondent in Baghdad. ‘I cannot run, I do not drive and I have a severe limp,’ he writes. But that inability to run, which would keep most reporters a hemisphere away from Baghdad, has not stopped him reporting from the most dangerous media posting on earth. The last issue but one of the London Review carried a typically sovereign essay from him on the diminishing prospects for peace in Iraq. He would be irritated to hear that younger journalists look to him for a model of courage and professionalism. All the same, they do.

Cockburn has written a compelling book which, like most journalists’ memoirs, is more a series of penetrating reports on different subjects than the mere account of a life. To compose The Broken Boy, he has done a great deal of research. He puts together an unemotional and lucid account of what the poliomyelitis virus does to motor neurones, of its variants and of its curious selectivity in its victims. He seeks out old official health files and polio survivors to put together an account of the Cork epidemic – something which people are still remarkably unwilling to think about sensibly, or even to recall. He digs out family letters and memoirs to describe the passionate, sometimes shocking and sometimes very funny story of his mother’s Anglo-Irish ancestors, and to reflect on the paradoxes of Anglo-Irishness and the old Ascendancy. He recounts the life of his rebel father, editor of the Week and then godfather to Private Eye, ‘the arch-exponent of this type of guerrilla journalism which at its best, and even with surprisingly little resources, can shake the mighty from their seats’.

Much of that Claud Cockburn story, wonderful as it is, was already to be found in Claud’s own autobiography. But Patrick also has a real scoop here. He has managed to get hold of the enormous MI5 file accumulated on Claud through twenty years of completely pointless surveillance and bugging. The occasion for it was not originally his membership of the Communist Party but official fury and panic over the secret information he was publishing in the Week, launched in 1933, the same year that he joined the CP. His sources had to be found. But they never were, and the written-up notes of the spooks who followed him doggedly from pub to pub would make political farce fit for any small theatre. All they really established beyond doubt was ‘the staggering amount my father could drink’.

His son goes on to revive some of Claud’s maxims about journalism, and to update them against his own experience. Claud proclaimed that facts and rumours were of equal significance, and warned against what he called ‘the factual heresy’ – the claim, dear to journalists with a saint-like idea of their own mission, that lumps of truth lie about like gold nuggets waiting to be picked up. He did not think journalism was either saintly or fact-bound. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’ Patrick takes this disrespect even further. Reporters, he finds, ‘are ill-equipped to extract information which others do not want to impart’. Most great stories – Watergate, for instance – arise from deliberate leaks rather than from fearless investigation. ‘A journalist might like to be a spy but generally ends up as a conduit for information.’ True enough. I remember how in Warsaw the great German journalist Ludwig Zimmerer told his apprentice Chris Bobinski: ‘My boy, in this job you must learn to let your head be used as a latrine!’

Somewhere in the MI5 bundle of rubbish, one particularly potty informant warns of the ‘Cockburn Machine’, geared up to sabotage every institution in Britain in the event of war. Reading The Broken Boy, I realise that there is indeed a sort of ‘Cockburn Machine’, still operated in different parts of the world by the three brothers. This is the belief in the primacy of journalism by leak, the insistence that journalism is not so much about finding out as about publishing. There is no limit to what employees will do to grass up their bosses, once they have some assurance that the dirt will get into print. But as Patrick remarks, ‘many facts are secret simply because the press has decided not to publish them.’ Leak nurturing was the philosophy behind the Week and behind Private Eye. And I now realise that lust for leaks compelled the Cockburn brothers in the late 1960s to join the Free Communications Group, whose journal Open Secret created pandemonium by publishing the secret franchise submissions of commercial television companies.

Some of these apparently disparate threads in the book come together, or at least converge. The matter of Ireland comes constantly to the surface, and it turns out that polio and Ireland have much to tell one another. Near the end of The Broken Boy, Cockburn writes: ‘The epidemic in Cork was a strange prelude to the years in which Ireland became a modern and developed country, whose success is studied by other countries emerging from the Third World.’ It was strange in two ways. In the first place, the epidemic is something that Cork people are deeply reluctant to remember, mostly because they associate epidemics with poverty, dirt and underdevelopment – the conditions that ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland has so astonishingly left behind in the last twenty years. But strange, secondly, because the significance of the Cork plague was really just the opposite. Historians today can read it as early but clear evidence that Irish society had already begun to emerge from poverty into something like the basic living standards of Western Europe.

The key is the unexpected aetiology of polio. The virus is orally communicated, mostly through shit and water, and in ‘the old days’ almost all infants acquired an immunising taint as they emerged from the womb, or soon afterwards. But then came hygiene. Soap and water, and diminishing physical contact with others in less crowded dwellings, meant that unprecedented numbers of children had no acquired immunity. Soon it became clear that the polio virus, whose mass outbreaks had once been very rare, was developing a radically new social profile. Unlike all the plagues of the past, it tended to spare the slums and strike instead at the children of the better-off suburbs, places where a new middle class had settled with low-density housing and habits of cleanliness which combined to reduce immunity. There now appeared a large and rapidly expanding pool of children and young people with no immune defences against the disease. As a result, polio began to occur in terrifying and uncontrollable epidemics, especially during and after the 1940s. In its timing, and in its ‘class war’ selectivity, polio was the emblematic disease of the middle 20th century.

Cockburn writes:

While researching this book I was repeatedly struck by the fact that few people in Cork or anywhere else understood the grim mechanics of the disease. They almost invariably assumed that it was the result of poverty and lack of development. The idea that progress, the development of clean water and sewage disposal might make people more vulnerable to a crippling disease never occurred to them.

Earlier, he remarks:

Many explanations were given half a century later as to why Ireland became so prosperous … Historians began to trace back early signs of modern development. Never mentioned, not surprisingly, is the polio epidemic in Cork, though it was a clear sign that Ireland in the 1950s had more in common with New York than it did with Nairobi … Cork was to join a select group of modern and wealthy cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Copenhagen and Stockholm – hit by polio epidemics during the 20th century.

His own case, then, can be seen as an awful sacrifice to modernity. The Cockburn parents, in their disintegrating Georgian mansion, supposed that its isolation would be a protection for their children. They were precisely wrong. Meanwhile, the ‘backward’ country in which Patrick grew up was not quite as hopeless as its superior British critics supposed. There were still horses and carts in the streets, and the diet was based on potatoes. But Ireland ‘was peaceful. There was little crime. It had a competent civil service. The health system had limited resources, but worked. There was universal education. If it was stagnant, it was also stable.’ In his opinion, ‘Ireland had not truly been part of the Third World since the beginning of the century.’

‘Stable stagnation’ meant, all the same, a profound and ancient poverty which by the 1950s had almost vanished from much of the rest of Western Europe. Visiting Youghal today, it is hard to imagine the grey little town by the Blackwater estuary which Patrick Cockburn knew so well. At first sight, the place is more like Torquay. Huge multistorey condominiums glitter on the outskirts. A stream of new Japanese and German cars glides slowly along North Main Street and under the arch of the clock tower, past new restaurants packed out with Irish diners addressing grilled black sole or béarnaise steak at twenty euros a time. But a second glance suggests that, socially, the Irish have managed to keep most of their cake as well as eat it. Youghal may not quite have the thirty pubs that Claud Cockburn patronised in his day, but it’s a rare fifty yards of pavement without one. And the new wealth has not produced the vast retail parks which have drained English town centres. The streets of Youghal remain lined end to end with small family shops and businesses, most of which look prosperous.

Do these happy people dwell on the 1956 polio epidemic? I met only one person who had even heard of it, and she thought it rather rude of me to be interested. Have these happy people, who have brought off the transformation trick so spectacularly, lost their immunity to the distempers of hunger, poverty and the sense that everything is naturally condemned to grow worse? I’m told they have not. The old endurance is still there, and what is missing is only the old resignation to the will of Heaven, the spirit that made the county medical officer say in 1956, at the height of the infections: ‘There is no need for alarm, because that would be as if we did not believe in God’s providence.’

It would seem that the Catholic middle class – the shopkeepers as much as the professionals – is surfing on the tide of prosperity. With the old Anglo-Irish, that now tiny and almost exclusively Protestant minority which once dominated Ireland as the Ascendancy, it’s a rather different story. In Youghal, a slow green avalanche of weeds and brambles has flowed over the Protestant cemetery around St Mary’s collegiate church. Here, Patrick, very bored, sat through services in the family gallery above rows of almost empty pews, and tried to catch baby bats in a matchbox. Surprisingly, the Cockburn parents went to church. Patricia attended because the Church of Ireland was a part of her family furniture and Anglo-Irish identity. Claud, although an undisciplined Communist, went along with her, explaining: ‘I don’t see why disbelief should be a barrier to religious bigotry.’ Next door to St Mary’s, behind locked gates, is Myrtle Grove, thought to be the oldest non-fortified private house in Ireland. Sir Walter Raleigh lived here, while briefly mayor of Youghal. Edmund Spenser passed many hours in its panelled drawing-room, and is supposed to have written part of The Faerie Queene in the window seat. Patricia Cockburn, born Arbuthnot, was brought up in this ancient, low-lying house, with its weirdly tall chimneys.

A cousin of the Cockburns still lives there, and showed me round. The old house is in poor shape, needing forbiddingly expensive repairs. Celtic rainforest has overwhelmed the walled gardens, where the tops of palm trees veiled in sticky-willie protrude from swelling undergrowth. Worse, I found, has befallen Brook Lodge, the beloved home of the Cockburns a couple of miles out of town. After thirty years they had to move out when the owner, a Los Angeles cop planning to retire to his own country, would not renew the lease. The house, always leaky, fell into terminal disrepair and was bulldozed to make space for a vet’s new bungalow. The neo-Gothic castle erected a few hundred yards away by a retired vicar of St Mary’s has been cut off by the new Youghal bypass, and the path to its abandoned towers is now impenetrable. Much the same, Patrick Cockburn recounts, has happened to other big Anglo-Irish houses he knew in this part of County Cork. They and their inhabitants, to whom the Celtic Tiger has brought only astronomic hikes in the cost of gardeners and builders, are sliding with gathering speed into history.

And it has been quite a history. Patrick Cockburn, determined not to write the usual nostalgic idyll about an Anglo-Irish childhood, tries to be severe about it. ‘The Anglo-Irish gentry in their decline after Irish independence are sometimes portrayed as befuddled victims of history, perhaps getting a rather better press than they deserve.’ As he says, that portraying was mostly done by the startling number of gifted writers which that class produced. But ‘at the height of their power, the Anglo-Irish gentry and their hangers-on were as brutal, violent and racist as any colonial elite defending its interests anywhere in the world.’ That goes for some of his own ancestors, like Sir Henry Blake, a ferocious oppressor and landlord in Ireland (though a more liberal governor of Hong Kong); or Sir Thomas Osborne, who made his tenants pay rent in horses, cows and pigs, and preferred to be treated by a vet than by a Catholic doctor. With these Ascendancy males came a succession of stupendous viragos who got their way by tantrums, blackmail, fists or, in the case of Patrick’s great-grandmother Edith, a gun.

There was certainly nothing effete about the Protestant gentry in Victorian Ireland. Their problem was stupidity, general but not universal. The wildness of Cockburn’s Blake, Osborne or Arbuthnot forebears is fun to read about. But I wish that he had mentioned the minority among that gentry who tried to create a new Irish future.

The late Hubert Butler of Kilkenny, from an Ascendancy clan himself, used to claim that it was Anglo-Irish men and women, inspired by their Protestant ‘right of private judgment’, who had laid the foundations not only for Irish independence but for the revival of Irish culture. But then, when Ireland did become free, that class had turned its back on its own achievement and betrayed its own mission. Its decay after independence, Butler wrote, ‘emptied all the houses where once great decisions were made, bold ideas canvassed and the first rough outlines of a great civilisation, half-English, half-Gaelic but wholly Irish, planned’.

A great civilisation? Youghal in 2005 is not that. But it’s a place whose people, though slightly high on new wealth, still treat one another kindly and shrewdly, where famine and epidemics have been taken off the open shelves of memory, where a decent fellow with average brains can feed his family without leaving for America or Birmingham. The polio epidemic can be seen as only the start of a long process in which the poor did continuously better than those who used to rule the roost.

Patrick Cockburn’s book reads differently in County Cork. He and his two journalist brothers are no longer so obviously the sons of the great Claud, but can be seen to draw from their mother’s Anglo-Irish heritage as well. They have that ferocity, that disdain for the second-rate and pretentious, that wit which lets them make a living with sharp pens in dangerous places. When I started The Broken Boy, I thought it might be a touching story about overcoming disability. Instead, it’s a glittering, sometimes sardonic enquiry into what polio revealed about his own country and his own family. Self-pity, evidently, is an old enemy long ago dealt with, as the book’s final words show. ‘Very occasionally well-meaning people suggested to me as a child that sufferings built character and endurance. Even at the age of seven or eight I suspected I had acquired those supposed benefits at an excessive price.’