Saturday, April 30, 2011

Smells in a memory

Isn't it funny how, more than five decades on, you can still 'smell' memories? The most recent for me was a mix of battery electrolyte and paraffin, a most distinctive odour.

The recollection was triggered when looking at the set of Kilcullen Drama Group's production of 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. There was a glass 'wet' battery hooked up to the radio which was a key prop to the plot. I remember similar batteries being charged on shelves in the back store of my grandfather's hardware shop, where the Eurospar is now.

The process, which involved the release of small quantities of hydrogen as the electrolyte bubbled gently under charge, provided a pungency to the other smell of the store, paraffin. Drums of the fuel were stored on the opposite side of the room, from which customers' containers were filled via taps on the lower bungs.

Safety regulations today would never allow that to happen. Hydrogen, paraffin, the possibility of sparking, what a lethal potential!

Those glass batteries were mostly for domestic use, probably made by Exide. That I remember them reflects the fact that the ESB national grid was still confined to towns in the early 50s. The ground-breaking Rural Electrification Scheme had only begun in 1946, and wouldn't complete its work of connecting 420,000 country households until 1979. And the paraffin was also symbiotic of the youthful stage of electrification, still used widely for heaters and for lamps.

Forward-looking, and wealthy, farmers had used similar battery systems in multiple cell racks since before the war, powered by their own small petrol engines to provide lighting throughout their farms. But the ones brought in to my grandfather every week or two for charging were invariably powering a radio set that was probably the only connection with the greater world for people living a couple of miles outside Kilcullen.

Our own radio at home was powered by the mains electricity. Actually, there were two in the house, one on a shelf in the small sitting room at the bottom of the stairs, which was used most of the time in winter because it was heated by an anthracite stove and was easy to stay warm in. The larger sitting room was used on Sundays and summer evenings, and it had a more salubrious radio built in to a corner cabinet where old 78 records could be stored for the gramophone. Among them, I remember, was a set of speeches by Winston Churchill.

Listening to radio was a family affair then, much as it later became for television. Programmes often acted as a timetabler for parts of the day. There was, for instance, a morning 15-minute 'soap' called 'Jaqueline' on Radio Eireann which, when it came on, meant I had just enough time to walk to school before classes started. And 'The Kennedys of Castleross' marked my return for lunch.

On Sunday evenings, Radio Luxembourg used to broadcast 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future', at a quarter to seven in the evening. It became a ritual that my mother would try and get me to leave before it ended to get to the Sunday evening Devotions. My case was always that, because there were advertisements at the end of the show, I could run to the church and be there on time. And mostly I was. People often comment that they always see me today walking fast around the town, and I do—and it's probably because I have always travelled fast on my two legs since having to get to Devotions on time.

The 'Din Joe's Take the Floor' and 'Living with Lynch' programmes on Radio Eireann had a particular interest for me because the presenters of both, Denis Fitzgibbon and Joe Lynch respectively, were regular visitors to our house as friends of my Mum and Dad. Later, in my own time at RTE through the 1980s, I would meet up with Joe fairly often, and rather less frequently in the years before his death. Always a man of great humour.

Sunday afternoons in winter were spent in the big sitting room listening to BBC programmes like 'Life with the Lyons' and 'The Navy Lark'. The BBC also contributed to my lifelong interest in space travel with 'Journey into Space', the exploits of astronaut (the word didn't exist then, though) Jet Morgan and his intrepid crew. At the end of the 1950s I was entertained for a brief couple of years by 'The Clitheroe Kid' getting up to adolescent tricks, mostly at the expense of his big sister Susan and her boyfriend Alfie.

The arrival of home-grown TV to Irish sitting rooms changed all that, of course. But I still have strong memories of how true even today is the answer to the old question, 'which is better, radio or television?'. Radio, of course—it has better pictures.

And I can still, in my mind, experience that heady mixture of bubbling batteries on charge and dripped from the tap paraffin. Condensed and refined in my memory, it probably smells even better now.