The Broken Boy, By Patrick Cockburn

When polio stalked the land and Punch paid the bills
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The Independent Culture

In 1956, while the young sons of the writer Claud Cockburn were isolated in an Irish hospital with polio, he would wait by the phone - and bang out articles for Punch. It was not callousness for either of us, but a welcome distraction - and welcome money. Cockburn wrote of his terrible time in his autobiography, I Claud. Now the Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn, the worst affected of Claud's sons, has written a book about the epidemic that both amuses and appals.

Patrick points to Punch as a possible culprit. His father was one of many who caught polio without noticing any real symptoms, but who were contagious. It could have been on a trip to Punch from the family home near Cork that Claud picked up the contagion and passed it on to his sons.

The virus put young Patrick into hospitals vastly overstretched by the epidemic. Just as he was losing the will to live, his parents got him discharged: legs in callipers, spine in a straitjacket and crutches under arms. He still walks with a limp.

Without self-pity, he uses experiences as a springboard to a general account of the shadow polio cast over Ireland (and, a little earlier, England). Few died, and only 1 or 2 per cent suffered lasting paralysis - but it was widespread and its victims were only too obvious when they ventured out on to the streets.

Squeezed into the centre of The Broken Boy, the humorous filling in the sober sandwich, is a family memoir going back two centuries. One ancestor extracted the rent from tenant farmers not in cash but kind: his currency was pigs, horses and cows. Other family hobbies were disinheriting each other or writing a vicious, thinly disguised novel about a husband's fancy women.

Patrick's parents led unusual lives. Patricia, a one-time deb and an author, was intrigued at the age of eight to see the head of Britain's armed forces assassinated outside her home in Eaton Place. After her marriage to a Marxist bounder she became a disinheritée.

Claud started The Week, a pre-war version of Private Eye; he was denounced by MI5 as a dangerous Red and appeared on Warsaw Pact files as Colonel Cockburn of MI5. In other words, he was clearly a good egg. As, on the strength of this book, is his not-so-broken son.