Colin Graham, ‘Robinson Country’, The Dublin Review, 40 (2010), 49-71
The full text of this memoir essay can be read at The Dublin Review website here.
Last year the house that I grew up in was put on the market. When I looked up the listing online, the house was almost unrecognizable. In the 1980s the front garden was a small patch of grass surrounded byweedless borders; my mother’s rose bushes snagged plastic footballs and were crushed by leather ones. The most recent owners had put in potted trees and exotics on a bed of beige gravel. In the driveway there was a caravan – for most of my childhood there wasn’t even a car – and there was a new door: white uPVC with an oval, faux-leaded window. The houses in our estate were originally built (in the late 1960s) with doors made almost entirely of glass, and the stairs led straight up from the front door; horror stories were told of children falling down the stairs and through the glass. But before long the wooden door frames rotted, so new doors, all with varieties of privacy-ensuring frosted and patterned glass, were put in.
The rot was not confined to the doors: I remember fascias and soffits collapsing all along the street, the dark, mushy wood pushing out from under the hopefulness of white paint. Above the front door and beneath the window of the ‘small’ bedroom in each house was a panel of tongue-and-groove wood; as I got older, the white paint peeled and was repainted; then this wood rotted too, falling off in wet splinters. In houses where the disintegration was particularly spectacular, it revealed the breezeblocks which were all that really held the houses together.
John McAuley, a builder who lived on the street, tore off his wood panel and replaced it with a mosaic of coloured bricks, long and thin, laid horizontally. And once John had the coloured brickwork, a kind of advertisement for his craft, so it spread. John lumbered and wheezed from house to house with his scaffolding, pulling off wood and putting in certainty, leaving a trail of mortar footprints along the street when he went home for his lunch. By the time he’d finished there was no wood left above the door of any of the hundred or so houses. Then someone decided to put a window in their kitchen wall (‘to let in a bit of light’) where the builder had deemed only cupboards should be. And so John started his rounds again, sledgehammering walls less than fifteen years old, putting in wooden window frames that ten years later would all be torn out and replaced with uPVC.
One morning in the late seventies – I think now it must have been during the European Parliament campaign of 1979 – I was alone in our house. Outside there was a distinctive noise, slow-moving and crackling. Up the street came a flatbed truck. There was no one walking outside, no one tending a garden or going to the shops. Ian Paisley’s voice echoed off the walls, like a station announcer’s. As the truck passed by the house Paisley had a megaphone in one hand and waved with the other. His canvassing was unfazed by the stillness, the blank windows and closed doors. Behind him on the truck was his Democratic Unionist Party colleague Peter Robinson, who had been elected to Parliament at Westminster for the first time just a few weeks earlier. Paisley looked at the houses, full of the expectation of recognition and reciprocation, though all he would have seen was his own watery reflection. Robinson looked straight ahead, his head unmoving, his arm stiff in its wave to nothing.