Oppenheimer, Beaverbrook and the appliance of science.

Before suburbia, there were fields behind our house. Sometimes from  a back window we watched old Mr. Seaver in a Mexican standoff with his horse. It was a Clydesdale, a dreadnought of an animal, 120 hands high, weighing forty tons, with steel shoes that made the road tremble. That at least was my estimate, from much closer to the ground. The horse knew what was in store for him, a day of toil and drudgery, pulling a cart or plough at his master’s bidding. That horse was no fool. He snorted and tossed his head, refusing the bridle. He reared up and trotted away in disdain. Old Mr. Seaver followed him, talking to him softly in horse language. It was an unequal contest, strength against ingenuity. Mr. Seaver produced his secret weapon, a hessian sack with possibly some oats at the bottom. The horse fell for it every time. The bridle slipped on. The bit went home. The day’s work began. The master controlled all that awesome power once again.

The Siemens company from Germany built our first major hydro-electric scheme on the Shannon. The awesome power of that great river flowed through our houses, at the flick of a switch.  It lighted our way in the streets. It modernised our farms and brought crackling radio messages from all over the world. Electricity lifted us out of the darkness.The fears of night time receded. The Banshee went out of business. Life became easier, or at least it should have.

My Old Man had a short fuse. I think he brought it back from the war. I think he may have taken it out of a whizz-bang. ‘Whizz-bang’ was the background sound of electricity in our house. He forgot to turn off his radio when the ‘new electricity’ was switched on in Skerries. We had ‘town electricity’ up to that point. The radio exploded. Not a promising start. I say ‘we’ but I was not around to witness his learning curve. He had a great many short fuses. He found that if a fuse blew, maybe a ten amp, you simply replaced the wire with fifteen or twenty amp wire. The plug might heat up and the rubber insulation might fry a little but the crisis was postponed for the moment.

For general maintenance he had a blasted screwdriver, a pliers and a bloody hammer. This is not to suggest anything sinister. The hammer was not bloody from attacks on nocturnal victims. It was that he could never find the bloody thing, or the blasted screwdriver, when a crisis arose. There was no tool box or recognised storage area. Even the bloody pliers went a.w.o.l without warning. It was useful for extracting bent nails (They weren’t bent when he got them) and staples. He had great faith in staples. Some bloody person left the tools out in the garden. You could find them without difficulty, as the bright orange colour was easy to spot in wet grass. What was that wartime slogan? ‘Give us the job and we will finish the tools.’  

The radio was called a wireless. It was full of wires. When you peered in at the back, through little ventilation slits, the valves looked like a miniature Manhattan. They lit up like the New York skyline. They brought voices from far away, the BBC Home Service, the Goons, (Oh, those bloody Goons!) Tom Jenkins and his Palm Court orchestra, AFN, (American Forces Network, with jazz and the first rock ‘n roll. ‘Turn that bloody noise down.’) Whenever the radio broke down, that bloody fellow, (Name witheld to avoid retrospective litigation) fixed it. He got it to work even though he sometimes brought it back with a few left-over  bits in a paper bag. ‘It works okay, Tom, but I couldn’t figure out what these things are for.’  Bloody fellow was also a member of the volunteer fire brigade. Do you discern a pattern there, by any chance?

The first electric kettles had no thermostats. When the water boiled, the kettle jumped and hopped around. Scalding steam and boiling water spouted out in every direction.  (Think James Watt,)  Ingenuity was called for. My father had a card table. He and his relations played whist, a game involving explosions, expostulations and kicking under the table. When he retired from contact sport, the table supported the electric kettle. The kettle stood in a metal tray to catch the splashes and overflow. The tray he got from his old friend Frank who owned a pub. It had a picture of a fish and the subtle message ‘Drink Bass’. Subliminal advertising. The fish must have been a bass but it was speckled by spots of rust (electrolytic action.) I thought it was a trout. ‘Never had a cross word with Frank. Bloody decent fellow.’

When the tray filled up to plug level, it overflowed onto the table. He always put The Daily Express under the tray to protect the table. There was  a Crusader squatting at the mast-head. I traced world history through the headlines. ‘I Quit The Reds: Oppenheimer.’  This was the man who oversaw the Manhattan Project and devised the atom bomb. I knew a man who could have helped him out on that. Underwater electricity. It could work. It became old  news on yellowed paper. ‘ Fuchs Off To Russia’. There was a subliminal message there. Klaus Fuchs was the bloody fellow who gave the atomic secrets to the Russians. After Britain’s humiliation at Suez, Lord Beaverbrook had chains put on the Crusader. The chains gave him the posture of a gargoyle.  Cardinal Mindzenty, the destruction of Hungary, NATO, all of human history passed over that card table. The formation of NATO was on the wireless. My sister said: ‘Do you realise that we are witnessing history?’ It takes time to get a perspective on it. The Berlin wall. The what? What was that all about?  Maybe it is time for Lord Beaverbrook to send his Crusaders back to the Middle east. It nearly worked the last time.

If you can keep your head, when all about are losing theirs etc. etc. My Old man was used to alarms and excursions. He extinguished chimney fires, most of which were of his own making. He unplugged rampaging  underwater kettles. He made porridge in a pressure cooker. Not wise. The valve blew and a geyser of porridge hit the ceiling. We dived for cover but he grabbed the pressure cooker and ran for the garden, drawing a line of porridge on the ceiling as he went. It sat in the middle of the garden grumping and sending out small jets of porridge for about twenty minutes. We went back to the traditional stirabout method after that. Bloody pressure cookers.

He was a prodigious reader. He read in bed. That bloody electrician fellow installed electric plugs with wooden ducting, (perfect kindling,) to carry  the flexes. The bedside lamp failed. My Old man rigged up a scientifically devised system of tapes and cup-hooks to switch off the ceiling light. You could hear the switch–kerplack– when he put down his book. It required considerable skill and strength to pull the switch up, a big brass gadget with a knob on the end . Eventually the switch mounting worked loose. You could hear his furious muttering–‘Bloody Gerry-builders’ and then his footsteps. He had to call the aforementioned pyromaniac to fix it. There was no fire. All was well.

Siemens also made great vacuum cleaners. When my mother hoovered up lighting cigarette butts, the flames roared out of the back of the device, making it look like a Lockheed Lightning jet fighter. (She shared a lot of my father’s technological know-how.) NATO supplied those planes to the West Germans. The Germans called it The Widow-maker. I read all about it in a parchment coloured Daily Express. The vacuum cleaner never seemed to suffer from the experience. it worked on for years. ‘Bloody good workers, the Germans. I’ll say that for them.’

He was, of course, a smoker. In later life he scorched armchairs and left burn marks on practically every piece of furniture. He smoked in bed and yet, except for chimneys, he never caused a  fire. He died quietly in bed, having finished a cigarette. He had been  reading The Windsors, that bloody fellow who walked out on his job. He left an unfinished glass of Hewitts whiskey. He would have regretted that. He had turned off the light.

One day Old Mr. Seaver’s Clydesdale reached critical mass. He achieved melt-down. He had had enough. He was knocking off early. He whinnied and reared. He bolted from the field, with the plough bouncing along behind him. He struck sparks from the road. All about lost their heads. There was no time to contact NATO and call in an air strike. The Widow-makers were probably grounded anyway. My Old Man was electrified. He leaped in front of the horse and grabbed the bridle. He hung on and brought the furious, snorting  animal to a halt. A good man in a tight spot. He was a tall man. I looked up to him.