Hopscotch: A Memoir, by Hilary Fannin, Doubleday Ireland, 237 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1781620311
The locus classicus for the memoir of early childhood, at least for Irish readers, is the opening thirty or so pages of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus, no longer the larval “baby tuckoo” but still weak and small, finds himself alone at Clongowes Wood College, an unwilling participant in rough, muddy games, where the greasy leather orb flies like a heavy bird through the grey light. Young Stephen tries to keep out of sight of the prefect and out of the reach of rude feet
on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side-pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt.
When you are a small child there are new words whose meanings must be learned, while already familiar words can accrue new meanings and there are strange rituals and customs to be observed and people whom it is best to avoid.
All the boys seemed to him very strange. They had all fathers and mothers and different clothes and voices. He longed to be at home and lay his head on his mother’s lap. But he could not; and so he longed for the play and study and prayers to be over and to be in bed.
Billy, the narrator of Hilary Fannin’s memoir of family and early childhood, has also, at four, been ejected from her home, though her plight is arguably not as pitiful as Stephen’s since the expulsion is only for a few hours each day. Billy – she has a proper girl’s name too but Billy is her “better name” – is one of the “small, grey, low-baby mice” attending a private convent school in the northeastern suburbs of Dublin, where she is learning chiefly of the great love that Mary, the mother of God, has for each and every one of us and the importance of fulfilling our responsibilities (“responsibilities are things we absolutely have to do”). One such responsibility is to wear the right shoes, at the right time, on the right day, in the right place: outdoor shoes on the black tiles, indoor shoes on the blue tiles, plimsolls or ballet shoes on the white tiles.
This is a rule. Fact one: a rule is not for measurement. Fact two: a rule is unbreakable. Fact three: there are more rules than facts.
It may be just as well that Billy is learning at school about God’s love for us all (bar the Protestants) as she is getting precious little of that kind of thing at home, where her father openly scoffs at religion and its ministers (“druids and numbs”) and her much older sisters seem more interested in the Beatles and ironing their hair straight. Daddy is really not around very much. He frequently has important things to attend to at his work in the advertising industry, where he draws things and often has to stay behind late in the office to kick some ideas around. But when he does come home he usually manages to drop in to Billy’s little bedroom, smelling warmly of smoke, Old Spice, beer and corduroy, to say goodnight:
“Who’s Daddy’s pal?” he asks.
“Who’s Billy’s pal?”
This oft-repeated formula never flags or fails, and it works equally well in reverse.
Apart from work, and occasional visits home, where he mostly looks unsettled and anxious to leave again, Daddy has his yachting – he is an expert sailor ‑ the seafront hotel, and The Club, where the men play snooker and josh each other with innocent obscenities and the pints wait patiently to be claimed in a long row on the bar, the sand rising up through the tall dark sea.
Things are not always easy. They would be better, more would be possible, opportunities might open up, if only there were the wherewithal. But in fact there is so little wherewithal that school fees remain unpaid and the postman brings growing numbers of manila envelopes with FINAL NOTICE in red just visible through the semi-opaque window. Apart from his absence and deficiencies in breadwinning, Daddy is given to making remarks, which while often intended to be humorous can seem to belittle his wife. And then sometimes, in the kitchen, the food will fly: mushrooms, fried eggs, sausages, not on the pan or the plate where they ought to be but bouncing off the ceiling or skidding across the floor. Perhaps Daddy should have been more careful. Anyone can be smart, but sometimes it’s better to just pull up a seat beside your tonsils and wait.
Billy’s mother has her problems too. Some of them may stem from the bills and the remarks, while others can perhaps be traced to Daddy’s secret assignations with the mysterious “snowdrift lady”, his baby daughter sometimes tagging along (“Who did we not see today?” Billy will be reminded as they arrive home again; but no need to worry, she’s good at secrets). There is also of course that domestic, suburban ennui, the feeling that there should be – in fact there bloody was ‑ something else (a once promising career on the musical stage) that slipped from view with the arrival of the plastic buckets filled with steeping nappies. Mother keeps herself nice: hair, nails, lipstick; but there is a feeling that this is in readiness for events that may never happen. As it is, her behaviour seems a little like that of the household’s sole non-human member, Lucky the budgerigar: “Lucky and my mother spend a lot of time in front of the mirror waiting to see what will happen next.”
Not that the suburban life does not have its compensations, particularly in relation to what may have gone before for the women of the burgeoning middle class estates in the confidently expanding Dublin of the 1960s. In anticipation perhaps of a sparkling Babycham or a vodka and lemonade later in the evening in the lounge bar across from the shops, they climb the linoleum stairs on a Saturday to Maureen’s Hair Emporium for a shampoo and set.
There, resting their heads back into Maureen’s tilted pink sink, they breathe in the heady scent of blue cigarette smoke and mauve peroxide paste. On this balmy autumn Saturday, they bask in the grown-up freedom of their new suburban lives. This is the beginning, this city suburb a new frontier. There is no room for inconvenient memory under Maureen’s helmet-like hairdryers, no need to think back to shit-stained cows and flooded fields and cantankerous mothers and lascivious fathers and feral priests and worn-out shoes. This is the life. This is the future someone might have dreamed of in a cold girlhood bed, under a beady-eyed Virgin, arms tight to her shivering sides.
Early childhood – particularly the childhood of the precociously intelligent ‑ is a time for questions. Some questions of course are just about the meanings of words and are easily answerable, even if the answer given is not necessarily the most correct one: Sister Mary Immaculate at school has succeeded Sister Celestine (“Immaculate means everything folded up and put away nicely”). But there are questions – what is venereal disease and why is it caused by “trial marriages”? ‑which garner no response whatever and must be consigned to the unaskable-questions bin. Others still generate responses which give only part of the truth. What exactly are Protestants, Billy asks, though she already knows from school that they do not believe in Mary and their souls don’t go to heaven. “Protestants ,” her father replies, “are people who make very good jam,”
Billy learns early on about rules and the importance of avoiding transgression: outdoor shoes on the black tiles, indoor shoes on the blue tiles, plimsolls or ballet shoes on the white tiles. Life, it seems, can be fraught with danger, though we do not know why this should be so. But sometimes circumstance – Eve’s expulsion from Eden, Billy’s siblings’ expulsion from school, the whole family’s eventual expulsion from their home ‑will show us “how thin the line that separated one kingdom from another really is. Like hopscotch squares, smudge the chalk with your toecap and you’re out.”
It is worth remarking perhaps on the ways in which religion – always a force for obscurantism and often one tending towards physical or mental cruelty –is seen in Hopscotch, set in the Dublin of the 1960s and ’70s, and how it was experienced by previous generations. Billy’s brother, John, attends a school run by people called Brothers, who are boy nuns and
often chat about giving the students a belt in the kisser. A belt in the kisser doesn’t mean what it sounds like. A belt in the kisser is when someone smacks you hard in your mouth, because they don’t like the words you’re using or the ideas that are in your head.
And yet, for all the brutality of the Brothers and the cold regimentation of the more genteel Sisters, this late twentieth century Irish Catholic universe lacks a few elements which were considered essential to earlier versions, and notably the Joycean one, namely sin, guilt, hell, fire, brimstone and the Devil. In fact there is one reference to hell in Hopscotch, as a place into which one might imagine falling through a crack in the carpet, but really it might as well be the coal cellar. This accords with my own observations that those who came half a generation after myself to Catholic education largely missed out on the frightening bits, which had such an effect on so many of their elders.
The complex of attitudes that is discernible close to the surface of Hilary Fannin’s memoir – hostility to Catholic religion and religious, hostility to the past, hostility to rural Ireland, a vast, empty space occupied largely by blank cows with shit-caked flanks, hostility to the Irish language (a “plateful of terror” that sticks in the throat like hard, cold potatoes), a nagging feeling that Protestants may be more civilised than ourselves – could be seen as fairly typical of sections of the Dublin middle class of the period and after, people who are beginning to want to shake free from the rather constricting ideology imposed by the first post-independence generation and engage more with the world and its pleasures. But there is a lot more to Hopscotch than attitudes.
One of those difficult words Billy is coming to terms with is “cute”.
Cute is a tricky word. If you are cute in America it means that you have a pretty little face and evenly spaced teeth and nylons and slingback shoes and quite a lot of bubble baths. If you are cute in Ireland it means that you can get away without buying your round.
And of course as well as “cute” there is “cutesy”, and “cutesiness”, the latter a trap very much to be avoided in writing a memoir of childhood and one that Hilary Fannin does largely avoid in spite of the obvious temptations. Hopscotch is written chiefly from the point of view of a child, who in the course of the narrative ages from four to ten (there is also a “Reader, I married him”-style epilogue from the perspective of several decades later). The book is not an entirely naturalistic exercise, however; nor is it structured as a narrative of “all the things I can remember and no more, as I experienced them, in the order in which they happened”. It can occasionally ‑ and quite profitably – violate verisimilitude: when Billy and her friend Norah discover that their neighbour’s “nanny”, Majella, has had her baby taken away from her until a proper Catholic mammy and daddy with a proper back garden can be found for it, they react with a venom and eloquence which would do credit to two contemporary anti-patriarchy warriors. They are six.
Memoir can be a difficult genre. We may all have a story in us, but it is often best to leave it there or only let it slurp out occasionally with the third bottle of wine. Thomas Mann once observed that a writer is a person who finds the practice of writing more difficult than ordinary people do. One can be pretty certain from the results achieved that Hilary Fannin has taken the necessary pains in Hopscotch, which is consistently funny, frequently touching and full of passages studded with sharp observation, impressive psychological insight and surreal invention. An autobiography, a “life”, can be an expansive story in which nothing, regrettably, has been left out and which, on the whole, one would prefer not to have to listen to. Or it can be a careful literary construction, in which much raw material has obviously been set aside and what remains shaped by patient artifice, and even some invention – it’s not a sin. And such a work, no matter how marginal or apparently insignificant the world it portrays seems to be, can sometimes attain the status of a small masterpiece. Hilary Fannin’s Hopscotch is one of these.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.