Friday, February 1, 2013



Writing requires such total focus that I have long advised that all pets should be stuffed, and that babies should be kept in the washing machine until fully potty-trained—and for as long as one can get away with thereafter. The above photo is in the spirit of such practical thoughts—and was taken, I gather, by my talented sister, Lucy.

I don’t think this particular animal is stuffed. It may have to be after going through a full dishwasher cycle.

When back from boarding school, I was sometimes allocated the task of looking after my younger siblings. Recall that I was the eldest of twelve—so keeping track of eleven was a not inconsiderable task, though I was primarily concerned with the youngest eight under the title of “The Babies.”

At the time in question, we lived in a rather impressive mansion on five acres of land outside Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland—which was a large enough area for the smaller members of the clan to get lost in. Also, apart from the house itself being substantial, there were numerous sub-areas where small people could wander into and vanish. There was the front yard and the back yard, the out-buildings and the garage, the walled garden, the swimming-pool garden, the front garden, the paddock, the orchard—and much else besides including a wooded area And then there was the road which the tiny ones were prone to wander onto until they got sense—unless the front gates were closed. They seldom were because they were wrought iron, heavy and awkward to handle—and my step-father liked to sweep in and out in the family Bentley. True, there was a lodge, but the days of its inhabitants doffing their caps and opening and closing the gates had been lost in history.

Today, I suppose you could tag “The Babies” with GPS locators and equip them with the dog collars that zap you if you leave a designated area. I grew up when dinosaurs ruled the earth. We are talking pre-history here, folks. Good grief, Hitler had died less than two decades earlier. Julius Caesar was probably still conquering Gaul.

Initially, I tried penning them—“The Babies”—into the empty swimming-pool. It worked for a while, but then the larger ones found they could reach the bottom of the ladder and made a break for it. I contemplated boiling oil and other counter-measures—I felt rather as if I was in a besieged castle as they climbed—but despite the brutality of an English boarding school education, which should have prepared me for extreme measures, found I hadn’t the heart—and boiling oil is hard work. Of course, I wasn’t yet a writer in those days. If I had been, matters might have been very different. The need to focus makes us authors absolutely ruthless.

Finally I found the perfect spot where the kids could play, see out, be seen—and yet not escape. It was in the tennis court which was rarely used. It was positioned under a magnificent eucalyptus tree which tended to bombard the grass surface with seed pods—making play erratic because you never knew how a ball would bounce. Yet it was a substantial area, and was surrounded by a chain-link fence equipped with a door you could padlock. Our very own Stalag, I thought to myself. Just in case you are not a fan of war movies, a Stalag was where prisoners of war were put by the Nazis.

But the Germans love long and complicated names. Surely Stalag can’t be it? You are absolutely right. Stalag is actually the quick and dirty version of Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager. Every home should have one—and we did.


In fact, it worked quite well for a while, but then the sight of all those small people staring mournfully through the wire started to remind me far too much of all those concentration camp newsreels I had seen when I was a kid—so I let the little monsters out.

It is tough being a big brother—nearly as tough as being a writer.


Orso Clip Art




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