My father says

Brian Dillon

  • The Sailor in the Wardrobe by Hugo Hamilton
    Fourth Estate, 263 pp, £16.99, February 2006, ISBN 0 00 719217 7

I owe what sense I have of the power of the word to a man whose power depended on words failing him. The first time I heard the term ‘West Brit’, it was spat out by a florid-faced teacher at a suburban Dublin school in the early summer of 1981. He was, I suppose, feeling harried: a week earlier, the stick with which, stuttering to a stop, he would, thin-lipped, beat us, had been stolen. To my horror, the word in the playground was that the thief had been inspired by an essay of mine, read out to the class by the soon-to-be-offended party himself; it was entitled, fairly unambiguously: ‘The Day I Stole the Teacher’s Stick’. Today, however, he was exercised by another sort of crime, a cultural betrayal of which we were all, apparently, guilty. Did we not watch British television? Listen to British music? Follow English football teams? We were so thoroughly anglicised, he conjectured, warming to his topic (and maybe by now missing the punctuating wallop of the old cane on his ample thigh), that we would probably favour the English team against our own. This last seemed preposterous to a roomful of 12-year-old boys; but something of his anger seeped in, along with my guilt at the episode of the stolen stick, so that I felt myself, for the first time, somehow insufficiently Irish.

The two autobiographical volumes that Hugo Hamilton has now devoted to his early years in a coastal Dublin suburb in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s amount to a study of the ways in which a national history insinuates itself into the mind of a child.[*] Perhaps the sense of not being Irish enough – Irish enough, that is, for the regularly encountered authority figures who worried about such things – was so generalised for children of that period as to be unremarkable. The dream of a self-sufficient, ‘de-anglicised’ Irish culture was still alive for many who had grown up around the advent of independence, and, if anything, had only been made more vivid in the years after the Second World War by the attendant notion that an authentic Ireland might also be a modern Ireland, serviced and subsidised by ‘Irish inventions’, as Hamilton’s tirelessly self-improving father puts it. The price of that modernity was their children’s unwillingness or inability to differentiate between a modern Ireland and a modern elsewhere.

Hamilton’s twin memoirs are, however, both more precise and more expansive than such a précis of postwar cultural controversy might suggest. The Speckled People described a dual assault on his childhood sense of belonging to an entity called Ireland. The first sort of pressure came from his father, John Hamilton, an engineer employed by the Electricity Supply Board, who had been galvanised in early adulthood by a vision of an Ireland culturally and technologically tooled up, and who, having failed to energise the country with his political speeches, was intent on charging his children with his linguistic aspirations. (Some reviewers have spoken of this man as ‘an extreme nationalist’, but he seems more eccentric than extreme.) What he and his compatriots ‘could not achieve politically, they would achieve inside the family instead, where they could create the perfect republic with strong leadership’. The Hamilton children were banned from speaking English at home, impressed daily with the lesson that their language was their country, and reminded that their country was in mourning: ‘He says a lot of the people born after the famine could not talk because they had lost their language and that’s why they speak English and have to listen to the words first before they can be sure of what they’re saying. But all that will be put right now that we’re speaking Irish again.’

The second form of attack came from outside his family: Hamilton was half-German and therefore, in the eyes of local children and not a few adults, wholly un-Irish. In The Speckled People, being Irish is at times infinitely preferable to being associated with Hitler, Eichmann and Himmler – ‘I wanted to belong to the saddest people and not the people who killed the saddest people’ – but it is also next to impossible: the Hamiltons’ attempt at cultural and linguistic austerity is manifestly at odds with the real Ireland around them. And being German – a form of comfort, of privacy and of inherited longing, all of it invisible to outsiders – proves no less complex.

At the start of The Sailor in the Wardrobe, the issue of language is still in play, but now augmented by other worries. Hugo has found a job at the local harbour, and a new friend, Packer, an enigmatic young man who ‘has a gift for making everybody feel like they have been newly invented’. Hugo has discovered, too, a degree of cultural autonomy from his father: ‘He knows that I don’t want to be Irish like him, that I don’t want to look like him or even listen to the same music or read the same books.’ The new distance between them widens around a Beatles record, inadvertently left on his father’s new stereo (reserved for the likes of Bruckner, Verdi and Mendelssohn), and the subject of a predictably pious speech:

He says I am allowing myself to be corrupted and he wants to remind me of all the good things which we have been concentrating on in our family. He says you have to be careful with music and who I allow myself to be influenced by. My mother says the music is quite nice, but she’s heard about how the Beatles have created mass hysteria in young people. We’ve all seen it on TV, girls screaming and fainting when the Beatles arrived in Dublin. My mother says it reminds her of the way girls were screaming and fainting for Hitler, and she doesn’t want me to become brainwashed like that.

His father’s brother, a Jesuit, weighs in too: he has been ‘reading a book about crowds and power’. Hamilton recalls that his father sarcastically translated the band’s name into Irish: Na Ciaróga; this crabbed ‘joke’ must have been common in Ireland for a decade or so, as bemused parents tried to defuse the intensity of their offspring’s new enthusiasm. Hamilton’s parents’ fuddlement is of another order, however: they can see the new world to which their son aspires only in terms of the political disasters of the past, and no amount of pleading – Hamilton points out that John Lennon, as a Liverpudlian, stands in the same relation to the British establishment as Ireland does to Britain – will quite wash with his father. To that extent, The Sailor in the Wardrobe carries on, without much thematic adjustment, from where The Speckled People left off; the latter is a book in which, as Hamilton puts it, ‘you have to be careful who to be sad for and not commemorate people who died on the wrong side.’

Hamilton’s story proceeds mostly by the accumulation of such domestic anecdotes, each inevitably overdetermined by external factors, or rather by the degree to which the outside world, or a version of it (a world long altered in many respects but, for his parents, unchanged), impinged on intimate experience. No childhood incident was allowed to be just that, but was immediately translated into the language of Irish pride or German shame. One Halloween, Hugo tried to become more Irish by joining in at the local bonfire, but he went too far, became too Irish, and recklessly threw a sod at an attendant fireman. He suffered from headaches, and was tested for meningitis by the agonising insertion of needles into his spine: ‘I developed a bad memory. I trained myself to go for weeks without remembering anything at all, but then it would come back again through my spine.’ Meanwhile, on the TV screen at home, images of the Vietnam War, of Civil Rights marches in America and the growing violence in Northern Ireland, provided his parents with more topics for instruction on the perils of conformity and the duty to be different. Like any enterprising boy of the time, Hugo made himself a petrol bomb, just to see if he could.

History, however, was not only an unwelcome adjunct to ordinary life, added on by over-zealous parents. It seemed to seep out of the fabric of the house. At one point, Hamilton comes home ‘to find the oak trunk open. My mother had let history out again.’ In the trunk is a book, given to his mother by her best friend, after the war, in return for keeping her family supplied with food. The volume dates, apparently, from the time of Gutenberg. Now her friend has written from Germany to ask for the book back. His mother replied, telling them ‘that it was the most treasured thing in the house apart from her own children. How could they think of asking her to give it back?’ The book is a talisman every bit as meaningful as the object John Hamilton hides away in his wardrobe: a photograph of his father, who had, he believes, disgraced his family and betrayed his country by joining the Royal Navy during the First World War. ‘Our family,’ Hugo reflects, ‘is a factory of remembering and forgetting.’ It is only when Stefan, the son of his mother’s friend, arrives in Ireland and announces his intention to forget his own father and his role in Germany’s crimes, that Hamilton is struck by the possibility that forgetting might at last have the upper hand. The form of the memoir, of course, suggests that this is not the case, and a good deal of the power of The Sailor in the Wardrobe is derived from the ambiguous nature of the recollection being broached.

The actual process of recollection is seamlessly elided by Hamilton’s straightforward prose, which seems to move more or less in tandem with events, the narrative perspective rarely straying from the child’s, or teenager’s, immediate perception of things. In fact, so untroubled is this style by protension or retrospect, that it is easy to feel that it is the expression merely of a unified present tense. But there is something rather odd about Hamilton’s narrative method, and it has to do with his reporting of his parents’ voices. It is one of the peculiarities of Hamilton’s two memoirs, at least in the context of Irish autobiographical writing, that John and Irmgard Hamilton never stop talking, never slacken from the task of failing to keep the family secrets. Rarely have Irish parents, real or fictional, spent so much time telling their children things. But it is worth asking where, precisely, these voices come from. The Sailor in the Wardrobe elaborates the late chapters of The Speckled People without, strangely, including the climax to the first book, the sudden death of John Hamilton. When we read the words ‘my father says’, we know that we are in the time of the book. In this sense, Hamilton repeats an inherited inability to let things lie; there is always more to be said, other, interstitial stories to be told.

Things seem a little different, however, with Hamilton’s mother. What are we to make, for instance, of an assertion concerned with her insistence on not forgetting those murdered by the Nazis, and here given a precise inflection? Hamilton writes: ‘My mother says it’s a new German invention, keeping those murdered people alive … something the Germans are going to be the best at, the un-killing of millions of people.’ Is this an odd thing to say to a child? Perhaps not in the Hamilton household, but the remembered remark – and there are others that adopt the same tone – sounds freighted with a later knowledge that can perhaps be traced to a few references in The Speckled People to his mother’s diary. Hamilton never quotes from this diary in either book, and doesn’t claim to have used it to gain access to his mother’s thoughts, but seems at the same time to hint that there has been a good deal of further explanation, later storytelling and reflection. This is distinctly unlike the conventional unfolding of the modern Irish autobiography, in which it is the job of the author to uncover secrets. Hamilton has composed a memoir in which, for once, an Irish family, whatever the complexities of the relations between the author and his parents, appears to make total sense to itself.

[*] The first, The Speckled People, was reviewed in the LRB, 7 July 2003.