Thursday 14 December 2017

The philosopher's tome: A childhood on the Antrim coast

John Spain on Trinity College professor Ross Skelton's unusual life story – one with a shadow in the background

John Spain

Ross Skelton is known to hundreds of philosophy and psychoanalysis students who have passed through Trinity College since the 1960s. First a student and then a lecturer in philosophy (now an emeritus associate professor), Skelton segued into psychoanalysis in the 1970s, doing research in St James's Hospital and eventually setting up the first degree course in the discipline in Trinity in the 1980s.

Always a man with a ready smile, Skelton appeared to be content and fulfilled. But there was a shadow in the background. Few of his students over the years would have guessed that behind him was an impoverished childhood on a bleak, isolated seashore a few miles from Carrickfergus, a story he tells with great skill in this outstanding memoir.

The journey into his past was prompted by a personal crisis he faced recently when his marriage broke down after he had spent eight years compiling his acclaimed Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis. This major work was done – mainly in his writing shed at the end of his suburban Dublin garden – in addition to his lecturing duties in Trinity and his work as an analyst. Towards the end, his wife showed him a list of burnout signs – and he had most of them.

It was too late to save his marriage . . . but the failure sent him on a search for his bearings, back to his unusual childhood in the North, where he was born in 1941; this wonderful book is the result.

Skelton's parents were middle class, but his father was in the war and was changed so much by the experience – when he got back to the North even his wife did not recognise him – that he could not settle to a 'normal' life or relate easily to his son.

Thereafter, he worked in various labouring jobs – although he was the kind of labourer who read Jung and Dostoevsky at night – and the family fell from middle-class comfort to poverty. Life was not too bad for Ross while they all lived with his grandparents, who were caretakers of a local mansion. (His grandfather was an old UVF man and there was a roomful of guns in the house.)

But that arrangement ended and Ross's father took the family – by horse and cart – to live in a ramshackle bungalow on a beach near a railway stop called Eden Halt. It was meant to be idyllic. In fact it was isolated and primitive, without electricity or much else.

Ross's father said little and spent most of his free time "scratching" away at his writing. He wanted to be a writer and knew the poet Louis MacNeice slightly. His romantic notion of making a living from writing, fishing and beachcombing left them sometimes with nothing but mullet for dinner, a fish no one else would eat.

For Ross, his father's fishing trips in a small boat were dangerous and exhausting. During winter storms the sea threatened to engulf the row of leaky wooden bungalows – most of them used only as summer holiday homes by Belfast people – where the Skeltons lived all year round.

Objectively it was miserable, but it was Ross's world and, like any child would, he made the best of it. His memoir of the time is full of wonder and vivid detail, as well as a cast of oddball locals.

As a young teenager he began to escape to the surrounding hills on a bike. He was bright but uncertain about his future and when he was 16 his ex-RAF father signed him up (for years) with the air force as a trainee mechanic.

It meant leaving home for good and it was not what he wanted. The memoir includes a heartbreaking but hilarious account of his time in RAF camps in rural England. Already his reading and his interest in ideas were leading him to philosophy, but it took him a long time to get out of the service. His father was not impressed, although at the end of the book he does drive Ross down to Dublin to start in university at the age of 22.

By any standard, it was an extraordinary childhood. That makes for a fascinating story. But it's the precision of the writing, the utter lack of sentimentality and the clarity of memory (perhaps benefiting from his years of work as a psychoanalyst) that lift this book out of the ordinary.

That is evident from the early chapters, which begin with Skelton's life now and his reaction to his father's illness and death, in passages that are full of lyrical observation, pain and humour.

There is his father's late admission that he was proud of him. ("Those magic words – there they were at last, but after years of waiting, I felt nothing.") And his mother's mildly bizarre behaviour at the funeral. She acted as if a weight had been lifted, wore purple, and ordered the hearse driver to take the shortest route to the graveyard.

It is writing of the highest quality, approaching that of John McGahern's Memoir, with the same observance of the 'scrupulous mean', avoiding both exaggeration and understatement.

After labouring recently through a pretentious new novel by an award-winning Irish writer, I found Skelton's book deeply refreshing as well as rewarding. Instead of overheated prose and portentous themes, here is restrained writing of striking accuracy, leavened with wry asides and great insight.

It is an absolute joy to read.

Irish Independent

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