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A giant leap for whom?

Enda O’Doherty writes: Like many others of my age and over, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. I also remember where I was five months earlier, on the evening of June 26th, 1963: standing with other members of my family near the junction of Drumcondra Road and Griffith Avenue as the American president’s motorcade drove in from Dublin airport on the first day of his Irish visit. And I remember too where I was when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, but I’ll come back to that.

My memory of the Kennedy visit is curiously similar to that recently recalled in a drb essay by Kevin Stevens (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-necessary-details), who was a few years younger than I when his father brought him to see the president when he visited Great Falls, Montana just two months before Dallas: the good looks, the dazzling smile, the deep tan, set off (in my memory) by a dark navy suit, but also, for me, the sheer size of the open-top limousine, something which might have been less strange to an American boy. My family had come to Dublin specially to see the president and we were staying, conveniently, just a couple of minutes away from the motorcade route, just off Griffith Avenue, in the house of my mother’s sister Maisie, and her husband, Paddy, also coincidentally a Kennedy, though with West Limerick rather than Wexford origins. President Kennedy was obviously important to my father, given that he was prepared to drive 150 miles to see him. And of course, retrospectively, the memory is important to me. Before the event, on the long car journey, however, as my mother would later remind me, all my chatter, excitement and anticipation had centred not on JFK but on a different Kennedy – no, not the glamorous Jackie, or even sisters Eunice and Jean, who were there too ‑ but on Trixie, Paddy and Maisie’s affectionate and clever long-haired Jack Russell: we had no dog at home.

John F Kennedy’s great appeal in Ireland of course derived chiefly from his ethnic/religious background. That he was young and handsome, and evidently very bright, were certainly bonuses. But we would no doubt also have gone out to wildly cheer a paunchy, sixty-year-old machine politician (Chicago’s Richard Daley for example) if he had managed to become president and ticked the Irish and Catholic boxes. Kennedy’s biggest selling point at home was probably his youth, though his looks, charm and eloquence (facilitated by his brilliant scriptwriter, Ted Sorensen) must have helped too. Aged forty-three in 1960, he was then, and is still, the youngest person to have been elected president of the United States. The theme of youth, new beginnings and a willingness to meet challenges wherever they might arise – but particularly abroad ‑ was strongly featured in his eloquent inauguration address of January 1961, when he took over from the seventy-year-old Dwight Eisenhower. It may well be down to the prosperity and sense of security that General Eisenhower’s two terms in office had brought Americans that they felt sufficiently comfortable to embrace Kennedy’s rhetoric of challenge and change. While the text of his inauguration oath was identical to that prescribed by the founding fathers, the world, the new president observed, had greatly changed over the intervening centuries, in particular as a result of huge leaps in technological capacity and consequently in humanity’s ability to transform its environment, for good or ill: “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

The world came close enough to contemplating the possibility of the elimination of huge swathes of human life during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, a standoff which occurred after the US discovered that Russian nuclear missiles had been placed in Cuba (itself a response to the failed US-backed attempt to invade the country and overthrow the Castro regime at the Bay of Pigs in the previous year). The Russians may have seen an opportunity to gain advantage over the new president, who one Soviet adviser wrote was “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations ... too intelligent and too weak”. Luckily for humanity both Kennedy and his Soviet opposite number, Nikita Khrushchev, were sufficiently intelligent, level-headed and tough to arrive at a resolution of the crisis, often in the face of considerable opposition from advisers and power rivals on their own side.

Was there any less dangerous sphere of competition in which the US could take on the Soviet Union and be seen to win? Well, as we have seen, President Kennedy believed in the early 1960s that it was within man’s capacity to abolish all forms of poverty and all forms of life. But while he obviously did not favour the latter course, and did all in his power to avoid it, he did not exactly concentrate his efforts as president on the former either and the main heavy lifting in terms of tackling (American) poverty was to be left to his successor, Lyndon Johnson. For Kennedy, other frontiers beckoned. In a speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas in September 1962, he had rhetorically fastened on the phrase “We choose to go to the moon”, repeating it three times, culminating in this declaration: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

One person who was among the 40,000 crowd at Houston that day, the journalist Paul Burka, wrote fifty years later that the speech “speaks to the way Americans viewed the future in those days. It is a great speech, one that encapsulates all of recorded history and seeks to set it in the history of our own time. Unlike today’s politicians, Kennedy spoke to our best impulses as a nation, not our worst.” The president, of course, did not live to see the realisation of his dream of landing a man on the moon within the decade, but his proposals were developed and his programme implemented ‑ at an estimated cost of $25 billion, or $180 billion in today’s money ‑ by his successors, Johnson and then Nixon. And it was the latter, whom Kennedy had defeated in the 1960 presidential race, who was able to speak by phone from the Oval Office to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Sea of Tranquility fifty years ago today. Of course there had been no guarantee of success for the moon mission and Nixon speechwriter William Safire had prepared an eloquent short discourse for the president to deliver in the event of technical failure and the resulting loss of the three astronauts, Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin.

The US mission to land a man on the moon had had a long and complex gestation – one could say of around eight years – involving, it is estimated, something like 20,000 separate companies and 400,000 workers. And of course there had been scoffers: back in 1961, Robert Gilruth, head of the manned spacecraft centre in Houston, had said of Kennedy: “Men on the Moon? Has he lost his mind?” As the finishing trials for Apollo 11 were being carried out and the last refinements applied in the early summer of 1969, I was simultaneously engaged in a delicate manoeuvre myself: after eighteen years of careful nurturing in the bosom of an Irish Catholic middle class family, I was getting ready to leave this sustaining atmosphere for the first time and - against strong opposition – seek a summer job in pagan England.

It had not been easy to get approval for the trip. My father had views about the place. His elder brother had died there, alone, in his twenties and everyone knew it was full of temptations and occasions of sin not known at home: barmaids, divorcees, lingerie ads on the escalators of the London Underground. It was the kind of place where anything might happen.

Equally, it was the kind of place where nothing might happen. Rich in A-levels but poor in cash, myself and my companion, a close friend from school, Paul Ferran, would have been hard-pushed to survive for much more than a fortnight without some kind of a wage packet. After a disquieting number of days of getting absolutely nowhere in our search for a job we eventually went to “our own people” in Brophy’s Employment Agency. “Well now, here’s one: two young lads they want to serve in the pub, no experience needed, live in, all your meals supplied and, well, probably about eight or nine pounds a week after tax. The Good Companions, Slough, Buckinghamshire ‑ that’s about half an hour or so from Paddington station.” “We’ll take it.”

The Good Companions had been a very successful novel, then a play and a film by the now largely forgotten JB (Jack) Priestley, a popular left-wing writer in mid-twentieth-century Britain. The Good Companions pub, on Stoke Poges Lane in Slough, just a few miles from the country churchyard that inspired Thomas Gray’s Elegy, turned out to be something of an embodiment of the English class system, with colonial extensions.

There was the bar (the “public bar”) and there was the lounge. And in the bar there was the bar proper and the “games room”, an adjacent but separate area from which one could be served through a hatch from behind the bar counter. I worked in the public bar and Paul, who was somewhat better-looking and certainly cool, worked in the lounge, where the quality, such as they were, drank. I was trained in by the bar manager, Ed Gaffney, a dry though fairly amiable Liverpudlian who told me he’d often been at the Cavern Club and while he didn’t claim to know the Beatles he had known fellow Scotty (Scotland) Road Catholic Priscilla (later Cilla) White (later Black), who he said was a bit of a slag who went out with black fellas. Ed was not overly impressed by me as an employee (“If speed was a disease, lad, you’d be the healthiest man in Slough”) but he showed me the ropes nonetheless: how to prepare without wastage mixed drinks like brown and mild (half bottled, half draught) and, the most important thing, the correct glass in which to serve a pint of beer: for a white man, a straight glass, for a black man a mug with a handle. That’s the way they prefer it.

This wasn’t too much of a problem. It’s a simple enough rule and I can only really remember there being one exception. That was Scottish Jim, who owned a small roofing company. His handful of employees, who usually drank with him, Pat Deegan from Dublin and English brothers Dave and John, were happy enough to keep to regulation procedure but Jim, for some stubborn reason of his own, took his beer in the same vessel that the people of Jamaica and Grenada, Punjab and Gujarat, took theirs in.

The guvnor, Captain Arrowsmith, was a bluff former Royal Navy officer, possibly from Yorkshire, an amiable sort with a plain man’s view of life: “Pablo Picasso? Well that’s all very well but can Pablo paint me a picture of Glenn [his Alsatian dog] that I’d enjoy looking at? No, I don’t think so.” The working day extended from 9am, straight after breakfast, out sorting empties in the yard, through to doing the till and cleaning up after closing time around 11pm with a perfectly useless three-hour break in the afternoon when the pub was shut. Paul and I weren’t great at getting up on time and sometimes the captain would come up and bang on the bedroom door “Come on, lads! The ship’s sinking!” until we disgorged, perhaps not so well-washed, and skulked into the kitchen to wolf down the very decent cooked breakfast. Mrs Arrowsmith, however, was not quite the softie her husband was and sometimes, arriving at a couple of minutes to nine, we would be sent straight out to the yard to work, in the already hot morning, queasily gathering and sorting yesterday’s mixer bottles from stinking bins in which the wasps were already hunting. But we tended not to be left breakfastless for long: as soon as Mrs A had gone off on her business, “Cook” would knock on the window and call us in to eat.

Cook was a kind and pretty blonde woman, perhaps in her later thirties, who we later learned had somehow mislaid her husband. How could this have happened to such a nice person? Maybe my father was right about the English. Perhaps by way of compensation for the loss of her spouse she was followed everywhere by her adoring dog Woppet (Woppet the whippet). I think it was from Cook that we eventually learned the circumstances in which the vacancies of which we had taken advantage had arisen and how The Good Companions had suddenly had jobs for two young Irish lads, no experience necessary, at the same time. The matter, it seemed, was shortly to come before the courts, and a few of the public bar regulars (including Dave, who had once threatened me with a dart for absentmindedly tendering him his beer in “a wog glass”) would be appearing on charges arising from a race riot involving on the one hand the patrons of the public bar, mostly white, and on the other those of the games room, mostly black. The bar had apparently been wrecked and some of the staff had either walked out or been let go pending completion of extensive repairs.

Many of the inhabitants of Slough came from populations dislodged from the East End of London by the Blitz. Paul and I, two young men on our way up to university after all, did not hold them in great esteem, particularly the white males. Fairly soon we thought we had mastered the essence of their conversation: “’ot, innit?”, to which the required reply was “Yeah, innit?”

There were exceptions of course. There was the strong, quiet Caledonian Jim. And the hilariously profane Fred, a fat, jolly man with a bald pate and a thin stroke of a moustache who came in occasionally as relief barman and regaled myself and Paul with obscene patter. Fred had little time for Liverpool Ed, for reasons he was unwilling to specify. Then there were two enormously smiling gents from the Indian subcontinent who appeared every half-hour at the games room hatch to place an always identical order: “Two pints Watney Red Barrel, two double Black & White ... and what you want yourself!” I wasn’t sure why they always came up to the hatch together. Was it that they couldn’t bear to be out of one another’s company, or did it just take two to carry all the drink?

Terri and Anne were motherly women in their forties (divorcees like as not) who drank together, in both the lounge and the bar. Terri’s drink, I remember, was a Pony (“the little drink with a big kick”, cream sherry in a Babycham-style bottle with a classy tinfoil wrapper round the top). The reason I remember Terri a little bit better than Anne is that she had a daughter, sixteen or seventeen or thereabouts and quite a looker. She had been hanging out with a bunch of skinhead lads, but her mother thought she would be better off with me and hoped to be able to engineer it. I thought this was a good idea too but in spite of a big smile once nothing ever happened. Paul, operating in the lounge, was a little more fortunate in this line than myself.

Harry and Ciss were perhaps the oldest of our customers. Ciss inevitably reminded me physically of my grannies, but differed from them in personality. Birdlike, she drank a bottle of Guinness, had her fine, yellow-white hair held back in a bun, never took her overcoat off, loved to chat, perhaps particularly to young men, and had a wonderful dirty laugh, which would sometimes become a cackle. She was a Londoner as well, and would do the Lambeth Walk to prove it. Harry was also a genial sort, but not often required to say much. He may have been a few years younger than Ciss and there was a sort of hint hanging there that he might have been taken on for more than his personality. “Ooh, he was a strong one in his day!” Shy smile from Harry, cackle from Ciss. They were not married.

At nights after work we would sometimes repair to the TV room for the late news or, on Fridays, perhaps a late film. Here we were often joined by Captain Arrowsmith, who was happy enough to let the wife pop on up to bed while he joined the lads for a bottle or two of pale ale and, as a man who had seen a fair bit of the world, give them the benefit of a few things he had learned along the way. It was in that TV room, on July 21st, 1969, that I saw Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon. I remember that Captain Arrowsmith, being of a more scientific bent and perhaps having been in charge of some quite complex pieces of technology himself in the course of his career, was even more impressed by it all than we were. And having thus – as it was seen at the time – anticipated the twenty-first century, a few weeks later in mid-August we returned shamefully, as the captain saw it, to the seventeenth, as the television news showed footage of Catholics being burned out of their homes in Belfast by Protestants. “Fighting over religion, lads, in this day and age. It’s ridiculous! Ireland must be the only place in the world ...” And more of the same.

Come September, as Paul and I prepared to move on with our scraps of savings to our (separate) universities, the captain half-heartedly inquired if he could tempt us to stay on. But of course he knew that you shouldn’t stand in a young lad’s way when it’s time for him to start his progress in the world. He and Mrs A had not been blessed with a child.

My short summer stay in Slough was the first of several trips to England in search of employment, none of them, it must be said, enormously successful from a financial point of view. In summer 1970 Paul and I set out again for London and ended up working in a factory in Hayes in Middlesex, where our task, together with another dozen students of chemistry, languages, engineering, economics, law etc, was to check a few hundred thousand tins of “Chunky” dog food (“with meat and liver”) which had been passed through a sterilising system which was later found to be defective. Only perhaps 5 per cent of the product that had been processed had in fact not been successfully sterilised and the company was certainly not going to throw out the whole lot. Our task was to get through mountains of cardboard boxes each containing twenty-four tins, identify and discard the offending items (which would be swollen or burst), replace them with good tins and reseal the boxes. Again and again, for, I think seven or eight weeks. I look back on it as one of the more pleasant jobs I’ve done in my life. The most memorable event of the summer – even if one cannot quite call it a highlight – was when, late on the evening of a Friday payday, the two of us were beaten up outside Hayes railway station by a few skinheads who jumped out of a van, did their thing and promptly jumped back in again. Why were we attacked? Because we were there, I think. And then off to Hillingdon Hospital for stitches, followed by the long taxi ride home to Hammersmith in London, the fare no doubt soaking up the rest of the week’s wages. On the following day, lying miserably on the bed in our tiny flat, we were roused from our self-pity by a ring on the bell, announcing the completely unexpected arrival of three friends from school who were in town for a Pink Floyd concert in Hyde Park. Things had begun to look up again.

A few years after this summer I lost touch with Paul, though I knew he was practising at the bar in Belfast. Just a few years ago we re-established contact and planned to meet at the Royal Marine hotel in Dún Laoghaire, where he would be staying with his wife during a weekend visit to Dublin. I knew from other friends that he had been suffering for some time from what I think was a genetic condition which affected his respiratory system. A few days before the planned trip he sent me an email saying that unfortunately he was too ill to travel on this occasion – but some other time. And then, in summer 2017, I learned from a mutual friend that he had died at the end of May.

As a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old I was – unlike my father ‑ a decided anglophile, and in some respects I still am. But the England I discovered in 1969 in Slough was rather different from the one which the BBC and the Sunday Times had been preparing me for during my impressionable adolescence. Indeed that was a country to which I was never to have an entrée. I think my first English visit was probably the happiest, certainly the most secure, with a close friend for company, The Good Companions as a comfortable home, the genial Captain Arrowsmith as an acceptable father substitute and a plurality of fond mothers and even grandmothers.

What was happening in Belfast in August 1969 had for me more reality, certainly more immediacy, than what had happened on the moon in the previous month. This was partly due to my feeling of being involved: the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland was one to which I felt I belonged. And it was no doubt also partly due to my scientific illiteracy and my reluctance to believe (though I could not have theorised this at the time) that scientific or technological progress necessarily involve human progress. Of course neither Paul nor myself “answered back” our employer when he teased us over what he saw as the backwardness of our home place. But we both knew that the conflict in Northern Ireland had as little to do with seventeenth-century theological dispute as the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965 had to do with skin pigmentation, both violent explosions being associated rather with oppression and exclusion, with seeking justice and equal opportunity and being denied it.

Neil Armstrong famously saw his moon walk as “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. Certainly it was not the wholly pointless exercise that some accused it of being, having driven significant advances in a large number of fields including satellite television, GPS, solar panels and, in medicine, CAT and MRI scanning. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the moon landing programme was a giant leap for science (and of course business) and that mankind is still waiting for its giant leap.

Fifty years later I still look back with pleasure on my first discovery of England, that new frontier that turned out to be rather different from the place I expected but no less interesting. And I would largely agree with what I think Captain Arrowsmith was getting at in his not unkindly meant remarks to two young Irish lads: a country that has never built a nuclear power station or an underground railway system or an aircraft carrier might well have something to learn from one which has. Much to learn indeed in many areas. But maybe not in the matter of the selection of the right glasses in which to serve beer to white and black pub patrons.

21/7/2019

Image: a footprint from Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. An earlier version of a part of this blog post appeared in 2015.