By the time I was nine I had attended ten schools, more than I can remember now. There was definitely the village primary in Moreton, Essex. The classrooms had rows of sit up and beg wooden desks and inkwells that pigtails could be dipped into. There were also bike sheds to be caught and kissed behind and iron bars at the entrance which you could tumble turn around whilst waiting for the school bus, delighting the boys with a flash of knickers. At lunchtimes we crocodiled down the road for a cooked lunch in the Nissen hut hall. I have no memory of the school food, but the smell of the chemical toilet remains with me to this day, its miasma of floating bodies fostered my life time ability to stretch my bowel capacity to its limits.
There was also a convent school somewhere on the south coast where I was absurdly delighted when I got into the junior school choir after a very high pitched rendition of ‘Do you ken John Peel’. A tiny country school where I won the natural history prize, a book full of pictures of wild flower and birds and where I ran the winning last leg in the relay for an all school’s county competition.
At a town school, the cream hut of a classroom smelt of fresh paint and was decorated with world maps patchworked with large swathes of British Empire pink. At lunchtime we used to queue by a wall to walk across to the bigger school hall opposite. It was whilst waiting that I was hit by a sharp stone which had been thrown by boys from another primary. I missed lunch that day as, after being bandaged and told I could have lost the sight in one eye, I was led to the other school to try and identify the perpetrator. With an empty stomach and a throbbing head, I tearily confessed to having had only a fleeting glance of a striped grey and red tie.
As the decades passed, these visual fragments have melded into a patchwork of unremembered school mates, smells, and mostly negative memories of school meals. There is one exception, that of school number eleven.
School number eleven was in Dublin. It was never quite clear, then or now, what my father actually did for a living. I know when I was too young to remember that he had run a small airline in Guernsey, and I learnt fifty years later from a long lost god father that he had at one time tried to sell ‘pince-nez’ for chickens to battery farmers, so that the birds didn’t pluck out all their feathers. I don’t think my father was that gifted a salesman, so that career didn’t last very long.
But when I was about ten my father was offered a job in Ireland, in something I believe to be in that sorcery of occupations – marketing. Off we went, all five of us, my maternal grandmother, me, my brother and my parents. It must have been summer holidays when we arrived because we rented rooms in a musty farmhouse full of heavy mahogany furniture where the curtains had to be kept drawn in case the sunlight faded the pattern of blowsy roses flouncing across the chair covers. There were staunch slabs of soda bread and salty butter for breakfast washed down with milky tea from a capacious green china pot.
And there were adventures, mostly in an open sided barn with giant stacked steps of hay bales and with a plump farm cat whose fur was a witchy balayage of tawny browns, blacks and ginger who produced a litter of numerous kittens, all but two of whom disappeared. My brother told me they had been drowned in a sack weighted down with bricks. I had nightmares about drowning for weeks.
After my brother returned to boarding school in England, we four moved into a prim row house in the quiet seaside town of Greystones. At the time it was a small community and our English accents made sure that we were seen as ‘different’. I remember quite clearly my parents saying that as soon as they opened their mouths at any social gathering, the subject of the ‘potato famine’ would soon be introduced.
I was duly taken up to Dublin to be interviewed at Alexander College. I remember that interview well. The headmistress was not at all concerned by what I knew, but by what I didn’t and consequently whether my mother wanted me to learn Gaelic. My mother, already feeling that we wouldn’t be settled for long anywhere, least of all in Ireland, replied no, that wouldn’t be necessary. The headmistress said in consequence that would be an extra twenty or so pounds on the bill. I learnt Gaelic.
The first day of school dawned and my father dropped me off on his way to work. My mother was to collect me at the end of the day. I remember the itch of the overly long brown pinafore on my knees, the tightness of the tie which my grandmother had knotted and the elastic strap of the hat digging into my chin. Father, also very aware of his new boy status, hurriedly thrust me at a passing teacher at the entrance to the formidable redbrick building on Earlsfort Terrace.
That first morning passed quickly in a sea of brown clad girls, with incomprehensible names and accents. I was relieved when the bell went for lunch time only to find that pupils went home for lunch on Wednesdays before returning dressed for hockey in the afternoon. Somebody must have noticed I was wandering adrift not quite sure what to do, and phoned my mother. I was ordered to sit on a chair outside the secretary’s door until I was collected.
Mother wafted in what seemed hours later on a wave of her special fragrance and whisked me away for lunch. We didn’t whisk very far, just a five minute walk to the Shelbourne Hotel, famed for being occupied by British troops during the Easter Rising and for the little known fact that Adolf Hitler’s half brother Alois Hitler Jnr worked there in the 1900s. The lounge bar was all gilt chairs and white laundered table cloths. Mother of course drank something fizzy in a coupe and I had a Britvic orange. At the suggestion of the maitre d’, mother ordered a local speciality. They arrived on a large gilt platter, a circle of fierce looking creatures with eyes on stilts and pinchy looking claws sitting on a bed of lettuce.
This was my first introduction to Dublin Bay Prawns. How to eat them was a whole new set of rules that had to be learned and more than a few starched napkins were dirtied in the process, but it created a love for all things crustacea. It took me a while to find out that these mini lobsters were not found in Dublin Bay, but in the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and off the sheltered waters of the West Coast of Ireland. I can only imagine that the steely eyed critters facing me on the Shelbourne silver platter had just been boiled and served with a pot of mayonnaise for dipping.
As it’s barbecue weather I’m going to digress from that simple recipe and try and replicate one that I saw on Youtube a couple of months ago. The combination of the melted pork fat, herbs and shell fish works very well. The heads and claws also make excellent fish stock.
Grilled Langoustine in a lardo, crumb crust.
Enough for 2 people, Preparation Time: 15 minutes
12 Langoustine – 6 each
12 slices of thinly cut lardo (You will need a good Italian deli)
½ tea cup of finely ground, dried breadcrumbs
1 tbs of dried oregano
1 minced/smashed fat garlic clove
Freshly ground pepper
Heat up the grill to maximum level. You can use a barbecue if you have a suitable grill plate.
Mix together breadcrumbs, oregano, garlic and pepper (I whizz mine in a spice grinder), dust a baking sheet or grill plate with half of the mixture and dribble with olive oil. I like to leave on head and claws for effect but you can remove both and just leave tail. Remove the shell from body then remove black intestinal track from back. Wrap each langoustine in lardo slice, lay flat on sheet. Dust with rest of breadcrumb mix and dribble again with oil.
Place baking sheet under a heated grill. Grill for 5-6 mins until just done. The lardo should have melted, leaving a caramelised crust on shellfish.
Serve on a bed of crisp lettuce dressed with an oil and lemon juice dressing. If you have time to make it, a thick slice of buttered soda bread on the side would help bring back ‘The Ghosts of Prawns from Dublin Bay’ – a pint of draught Guiness would work too, but only if brewed using the waters of the Liffey.