The Broken Boy by Patrick Cockburn

Eccentrics for every occasion
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I could never see him, for example, beating his breast while quoting Thomas Gray: "See the wretch who long has tost/ On the thorny bed of pain,/ At length repair his vigour lost,/ And walk and breathe again." Which is not to say that he isn't entitled to, since his childhood tribulations were such that he is very fortunate to have survived them. At one point in his illness, which struck him down in 1956, so quiet and withdrawn had he become that his parents "decided, probably rightly, that I was dying". Only when they removed him from hospital and took him home did the boy begin "to recover my spirits". Something similar occurred two centuries earlier when the young Comte de Mirabeau caught a fever and was so preternaturally meek and silent his whole family was convinced he was finished. One wonders if these early escapes raise life's octane in subsequent years.

Cockburn's memoir is enthralling for reasons beyond the polio experience that impairs his gait. We meet eccentrics of almost every stripe, including a great-great-great-grandfather who insists on his tenants paying him in livestock, rather than money, but doesn't mind them stealing some of it back. There is a great-great-grandmother who greets her philandering husband with: "I trust you are well, Mr Osborne, and how did you leave your mistresses?" A great-grandfather loots the iron gates of a Chinese village to adorn the entrance to his estate in County Cork. A grandfather hides sandwiches under his bearskin helmet before accompanying his debutante daughter to Buckingham Palace. (Fearing a long wait before supper, he plans a secret snack, but the butter in the sandwiches melts copiously and spreads disastrously "everywhere".) The debutante is Cockburn's mother Patricia, wife of the legendary Claud Cockburn, founder of the brilliantly irreverent news-sheet, The Week, and a former driving spirit behind Private Eye.

Aside from these wonderful, frequently dysfunctional characters, we are offered a revealing window into Anglo-Irish society as it slides towards nemesis. Cockburn writes of the predicament of the "Protestant Ascendancy", its airs and graces, absurdities and sacrifices, imprudence and resilience with a gentle irony that is, I believe, the very essence of his own nature. Poverty attended the family as it did many other Anglo-Irish "big houses".

Cockburn's Communist father, descended from Sir George Cockburn, a naval commander in the Napoleonic Wars, was destined to be poor. He worried about his appearance at an Oxford interview for a travelling fellowship: "He was aware that in the course of his travels he had worn large holes in his shoes so his socks were visible and, since the threadbare socks could have -finally disintegrated on the way to the interview, he might be displaying bare flesh. He explained that 'in any case, either socks or flesh would create an abominable impression, so that throughout the conversation I had to sit rigidly in an entirely unnatural position trying to remember, while chatting in an easy manner, to keep my feet flat on the carpet'."

The book is a treasure chest of anecdotes, many of them charming. In the town of Youghal, not far from the Cockburn home, an elderly man kindly reads the Cork Examiner to a blind woman, is bored with the contents and invents more interesting stories for her, one of which, he "reads", is about a man arrested for strangling an elephant in his cellar. Others include reports from MI5 on Claud Cockburn's news-gathering, fuelled partly by leaks from highly-placed sources. A 1939 document from Naval Intelligence to MI5 refers to a sinister "Cockburn Machine" which "controls military, naval and industrial espionage and would be responsible for sabotage in the event of war or revolution".

The Cockburn family, including the author's older brothers Alexander and Andrew and step-sister Sarah, are all writers, rightly seen as foes of the three "obs" - obscurantism, obsequiousness and obfuscation. Patrick Cockburn is solidly within the frame, and this memoir, like his journalism from the Middle East and elsewhere, is that of an unbroken man.