After all that happened over the past few months, I was thinking once again about my father’s profession, and his father’s profession, and our early life with him in Cookstown. I already wrote a little about this, but talking about it to friends I realised that there was a fair amount of things that I remembered that I had never written about. So here is the first installment: my life in Burn road, circa 1970.
For the first eleven years of my life, we lived in Cookstown, on the Burn road at house number 16. The Burn road is just off Cookstown’s long main street: it is an interesting mixture of terraced residential housing, parking, the town hall. I suppose that yes, at some point there was a small river there, but I never saw any trace of it. Beyond our house, at the end of the street, there was a clothing factory, and we would hear the factory sirens in the morning and evening. The factory is derelict today.
The house we lived in is still there, but the yard and workshop where my father and his father worked are gone, converted into a supermarket parking lot. I have a photograph of Henry Joy McCracken I, standing in his suit and tie and hat in the back yard of this house at Burn road, under rays of improbable northern-Irish sunshine. It must have been 1950, 1960. He was dead already a decade or two by the time I was born. Next to our house and the yard there was a garage: it is still there today, but it is no longer a garage. For a while after we left, if you looked carefully on the wall of our house, you could see the faint outlines of the sign that had been painted on the wall in red and black letters, “McCRACKEN”, it read, “Monumental sculptor”. That is gone too, painted over. For the first few years of my life, I slept with my sister in an L-shaped room on the first floor. We had our beds in opposite sides of the room, and we couldn’t see each other, but we could talk, which was reassuring when you were four years old and a bit frightened, as I was.
We left Burn Road the year of Britain’s military adventure in the south atlantic, to make way for the parking lot: I remember vaguely packing boxes whilst listening to voices transmitted from the other side of the word describing aircraft carriers and remote windswept islands. I suppose, like in “Emperor of ice cream”, we all secretly wished that the other side would win.
Beyond the yard there was the garden, which was wild and overgrown. I had a lot of fun hiding in the hedges (where I would invariably get badly scratched by brambles and thorns) or climbing the trees. I remember one time climbing high in the trees with a old radio, just to see if I could pick up some stations that were inaccessible at ground level. Alas, I don’t remember there being any.
In one part of the hedge there was a kind of secret natural corridor, with trees at one end, and I found it fantastically exciting. On the other side of the garden, if you were brave enough, the hedge led through a thick grove with some weird plants (thinking back on it now they seem to have been some kind of Northern Irish bamboo), and, into the neighbours’ garden. Reflecting on it now, I can see why John Wyndham’s killer plant epic “The day of the triffids” had such resonance with me. At the very top of the garden was a steep bank of earth which led to the back of the houses on the street parallel to Burn road. There was the ruins of an old van, hanging upside-down in the bushes at the end of garden. One of my friends assured me that I would get gangrene and have to have my arm amputated if I even touched any of the rusted metal (his father was a doctor, so I knew he must be right). Between the garden and the house was the yard where my father worked.
So, in the next installement: how to make a cheap Virgin Mary.