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The Writing Cure

David Blake Knox

Eden Halt: An Antrim Memoir, by Ross Skelton, Lilliput Press, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1843513988

Memoirs that are set in Ulster during the decades that led up to the most recent “troubles” tend to follow two principal routes. If they are written by Northern Irish Catholics, there is usually some sense of a gathering political storm, and some awareness that the days of reckoning ‑ for all of the real and perceived injustices that their community had suffered from Unionists ‑ were close at hand.

If the memoirs are written by Northern Irish Protestants, the 1950s are sometimes viewed as an idyllic era: a time when Catholics could be expected to enjoy the craic of the “Twelfth” almost as much as the Orangemen themselves, when sectarian tension seemed to exist only at the level of good-natured banter and when the bitter conflict of the Northern state’s violent birth was fast becoming a distant memory. For some Protestants, the Ulster of the 50s and early 60s – one of modest economic prosperity, and equally modest ecumenical contact – can assume the innocence and charm of a lost Eden. In that context, it may seem appropriate that the title of this memoir is taken from a railway “halt” – not a proper station ‑ near a village called Eden, in East Antrim, where the author spent much of his childhood.

Ross Skelton does not, however, look back on his childhood through rose-tinted glasses ‑ or with much obvious affection for that matter. In the early part of his life he was to experience a number of dislocations – of both the literal and figurative variety. He spent his first months with his mother in the rather grand surroundings of Sunnylands House, near Carrickfergus, where his paternal grandparents were employed as caretakers. He and his mother moved from there to live for several years close to her family in England. When his father returned from active service in World War Two, they came back to Ireland: to Trooperslane – a village that was also near to Carrickfergus. They lived there in a red-brick house that was owned by his grandparents. However, when Sunnylands House was sold for redevelopment his grandparents returned to live in Trooperslane. This meant that Skelton and his parents were obliged to relocate again, this time to a rickety bungalow – described by Skelton as a shack ‑ beside a beach and close to Eden village.

In social terms, these moves represented a downward spiral. This may have contributed to the strong feelings of isolation that pervade this memoir – but they are by no means the only contributing factors. The cluster of wooden beach houses where the Skeltons had come to live were mainly used as holiday homes during the summer. For the rest of the year, most of them lay empty. Not surprisingly, it would seem that the long winter months were bleak and lonely times for the young Skelton. In his memoir, the micro-community of permanent beach dwellers almost seems to have existed on the margins of human society: combing the sands by day for anything of value that the sea might have thrown up, and living in a state of constant anxiety that their flimsy homes would be overwhelmed one stormy night and swept away by a high tide.

Eden village was situated in the Carrick parliamentary constituency – a part of Antrim where Presbyterians were by far the largest religious denomination. The Carrick region was once a stronghold of the United Irishmen: this is where William Orr was hanged, and where Henry Joy McCracken was captured while trying to escape to America. However, at the time that Ross Skelton was growing up the constituency was so solidly Unionist that candidates for the Stormont parliament were frequently returned unopposed. In the first half-century of the Northern state’s existence, none of the sitting MPs for Carrick ever lost their seats: they were only replaced when they retired or died. Given the lack of any real electoral contest, it is quite understandable that Ulster politics do not seem to have featured greatly in Skelton’s family life: in fact, they are barely mentioned in his memoir.

What is more unusual is his lack of connection with other aspects of life in the locality. The Carrick area was one of the Orange Order’s traditional heartlands: this was, after all, where King Billy first set foot on Irish soil ‑ and in several respects the order played a significant social role for many Protestants. Every Twelfth of July a major parade was held in Carrickfergus, and Eden village was home to a well-regarded Orange pipe band. As a boy, Skelton enjoyed watching the annual parades, and decided that he wanted to join the “Star of Eden” band. He was told that to do so he would, first, have to join the Junior Orange Order. However, when he raised this possibility with his English mother, she reacted “with horror” ‑ explaining to her son that they were not “those type of people”. His father was equally outraged: telling Skelton that he would only join an Orange Lodge “over my dead body”. He also told Skelton never to mention his ambition to his grandfather because “he would have a fit”.

There have always been significant numbers of Northern Protestants who disliked and rejected the Orange Order. Sometimes, their disapproval was caused by political beliefs or religious scruples; sometimes it was simply due to a general distaste for the vulgarity and rowdiness of the Twelfth celebrations. In the case of Skelton’s grandfather, however, the antipathy seems more surprising. He had been active in the UVF before the First World War and was involved in the running of thousands of rifles from Hamburg to Larne in April 1914. Indeed, according to his grandson, “Pa” Skelton had held onto half a dozen old Mausers – which he kept locked up in his pantry. In the context of this memoir, the old man’s dislike of the Orange Order serves to demonstrate the persistence of counter-currents within what might seem like the monolith of Northern Irish Unionism.

There appear to have been a number of other issues that distinguished Skelton’s family from their neighbours. Neither of his parents was religious in a conventional sense: they never attended church, did not observe the Sabbath, and seldom – if ever ‑ read the Bible at home: central features, at that time, of Northern Presbyterian culture. At one point Skelton’s mother even used a collection of old Bibles to fill a breakwater in front of their home. After the next storm, her son found that the beach was strewn with “hundreds of sodden pages of scripture”. As a result of this perceived sacrilege, one of their neighbours refused to speak to the family for several years.

When Skelton was sent to church by his parents it was intended as a form of punishment. For a brief period, he attended Carrick Congregationalist Church – part of a small evangelical union with only a few thousand followers in Ulster. One of its independent congregations was in the news recently when it severed its connection with the Girls’ Brigade – a scouting organisation associated with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Apparently the brigade had allowed its members to dance and to sing popular songs. The Whiteabbey Congregation found such behaviour unacceptable – since their church frowned on dancing and only sanctioned the singing of metrical psalms. Skelton managed to avoid becoming caught up in similar controversies, and the tenets of Congregationalism appear to have made little long-term impression upon him.

He was not raised as an only child, but he was more than eight years older than his brother – his one sibling. In fact, Skelton seems to have grown up in the company of very few relatives of his own age. Many of the uncles and aunts that feature in his book appear to have belonged to his grandfather’s generation – and Skelton was amazed when he discovered that he had a second cousin in the same class at primary school. Bert Skelton appears to have become the closest friend that Ross Skelton made in his early life: they shared an unlikely, but consuming, passion for racing pigeons. However, the heart of this memoir does not rest in an exploration of their exploits, but in what its author terms the “unhappy relationship” between himself and his father, Thomas.

Skelton’s father had experienced a somewhat unusual upbringing. Although his parents had a very modest income, Thomas had grown up on the Sunnylands Estate, owned by Dawson Bates – an astute but deeply sectarian politician who served as Stormont’s minister of home affairs for over twenty years. According to Skelton, he was accompanied on his rare visits to Sunnylands by his bodyguard, “Buck Alec” Robinson – a notorious Loyalist gunman who had once provided a similar service for Al Capone. In Bates’s absence, Thomas Skelton and his siblings grew up enjoying a free run of the Big House and its grounds. Thomas went on to win a scholarship to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution – or “Inst” as it is better known – one of the top grammar schools in Northern Ireland. He was obviously a very bright student, but he did not go on to attend university or receive any third level education. Perhaps, there were not sufficient funds in his family to make that possible – or perhaps it was simply not an expectation of someone from his social background.

Instead he joined the RAF shortly before the Second World War was declared, and it would appear that he was severely traumatised by his subsequent wartime experiences. He told his son that he had managed to survive that conflict “only by assuming he was already dead”. Curiously, my own father – who came from a different part of Ireland, and who fought in a different operational theatre – said much the same thing to me. Skelton suggests that, after the war, his father “found it difficult to re-join the living”, and my own father encountered similar difficulties.

The psychological distress that Thomas Skelton had experienced in the war can only have been exacerbated by his extreme reluctance to talk about it – or, indeed, to express any of his feelings to his elder son, beyond anger and irritation. This apparent inability to display any consistent signs of affection was, no doubt, compounded by Thomas’s failure to achieve his primary goal, which was to make a significant impact – and living – as a professional writer. Instead, he spent most of his working life in a variety of stopgap occupations – as a civil servant, fisherman, storeman or casual labourer – while he waited impatiently for his full-time literary career to commence.

Over the years, Thomas did manage to publish a number of newspaper articles, as well as making occasional broadcasts for BBC Northern Ireland and “Radio Athlone”. He also wrote a book, Clay Under Clover, which was reviewed favourably in the Observer by his friend, the poet Louis MacNeice. But the critical breakthrough as a writer that he craved never took place. Instead, according to his son, they could have papered the walls of their house “with publishers’ rejection slips”. The lack of success, or critical recognition, seems to have soured Thomas’s spirit. Perhaps inevitably, it seems that some of the bitterness that this sense of failure produced was directed towards his son, Ross.

Of course Thomas Skelton was not the only one to suffer because he had failed to secure an adequate income. It is clear from this memoir that the whole Skelton family often lived in conditions of miserable poverty and deprivation. Wretched as those conditions may have been, they pale when set against the emotional neglect – and the withholding of affection ‑ that Thomas visited upon his son. It is impossible to read this memoir without feeling for the child who was denied his father’s approval for so many years. Towards the end of his life, when he was dying in a nursing home, Thomas Skelton told his son for the first time that he was proud of him. According to Ross Skelton, these were the “magic words” that he had waited all his life to hear. But, of course, they came too late, and he “felt nothing” when they were finally spoken.

Shortly before he died, Thomas Skelton described himself to his son as a “nobody” who lacked any real importance. However, the character who emerges from his son’s memoir is a more substantial individual: someone who displayed a certain stubborn integrity – even if at times it may have tended to the self-destructive. Skelton’s portrait of his father is finely balanced ‑ between an intuitive sympathy for the deep frustration in Thomas’s life and a parallel recognition of the hurt he managed to inflict upon his children.

One does not have to look far to find evidence of the influence which his father has exerted on Skelton’s own life. Like him, he joined the RAF when still a teenager – though he left after a few years to pursue third level education. Thomas Skelton was attracted by esoteric forms of human understanding – such as the theosophic writings of Madame Blavatsky. Ross has studied more mainstream analysts – such as Freud and Lacan ‑ and is currently an emeritus associate professor of philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Ross Skelton’s description of his work practices – sequestered in a shed at the bottom of his garden ‑ recalls his account of his father hammering away for hours, alone at his typewriter, struggling to become a successful writer. Ross Skelton attributes the break-up of his marriage to his near-obsession with his academic work. Thomas Skelton’s behaviour also seems to have been obsessive: his marriage did not break up, but it appears from this memoir to have been fairly dysfunctional.

Perhaps what connects and divides the two Skeltons most clearly ‑ and most poignantly – can be found in their respective relationships to their writing. Although he has worked as an academic for the bulk of his life, Ross Skelton admits that, for many years, this may have seemed a “strange career” for him to follow. He explains that “from the very beginning” he laboured under what must have been a major disadvantage: he simply “could not write”. This might be considered a serious liability in a profession where success often seems predicated on the ability to publish widely and often. It also stands in sharp contrast to his father’s obstinate sense of his vocation as a writer. The impasse appears to have been broken some years ago when Skelton was commissioned to produce what became his magnum opus: a thousand-entry encyclopaedia of psychoanalysis. He found relief from the demands of that exacting work by beginning to write about his childhood: the present memoir is the product of that process.

It seems obvious that writing this book has served an important therapeutic function for its author. Indeed, he believes that it has generated a type of “invisible mending” – through which he has come to understand his parents, to love them, and to see himself in them. Given the author’s training as a practising psychoanalyst, it is not surprising that he can write about his father with an unusual degree of insight and rigour. What is much less common is the quality and precision of his prose and his clear sense of visual detail. He has written a vivid and moving account of his childhood. He has cast light upon some of the hidden complexities of Ulster society in the middle of the last century. But, and perhaps most importantly, he has not only respected and honoured his father’s memory – in a way, he has also fulfilled Thomas Skelton’s dearest hope: by writing a book of lasting value.

June 17th, 2013

David Blake Knox is a former Director of Production with RTÉ, and Executive Editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published last year by New Island Books.

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