Memories · Notes from West London

What I think of when the clocks go forward

The clocks went forward in the early hours of yesterday. Our first experience of British Summer Time this year was a cold and wet West London morning but things had cleared by evening. It stayed light until after 7.30pm, as it will do for many months to come.

We still have plenty of clocks and other devices that do not update automatically, including the Date & Time display in the car, alarm clock radios (mine dates back to 1989, still running perfectly) and our one reliable CD player.

I have spent over 40 years updating watches and other timepieces at this time of year, so I could have a store of memories relating to this weekend. Instead, I always think of the same weekend, back when I was 15. Similarly, when the clocks go back in the autumn I always think of a time when I was a few years older than that, in my student days. I wrote about it here in 2016.

When I was 15, that weekend when the clocks went forward, I was a few months away from taking my O Levels (the equivalent of GCSEs, for anyone under 40). I recall sunny spring weather and a unique event in my family history: my parents had a dinner party. We had had people to dinner before and we had had parties of various kinds (First Holy Communions, birthdays, a big farewell to our closest neighbours when they sold up and moved to France). But we had never had a proper grown-up dinner party.

The dinner guests were all from Ireland (like my own parents), and their children had been at primary school with my brother, my sister and me. One of my mother’s closest friends (Anna, from Clare) was returning to Ireland with her husband John (from Cavan) and their son Dermot (born here). Dermot, like my brother Jim, was about to sit his A-Levels, but did not have plans to go to university. The two of them had been good friends at primary school, had remained friends after going to different secondary schools, and were now drinking buddies.

The family’s imminent departure for Ireland was the reason for the dinner party. The other guests, and the counties they hailed from, were Austin (Sligo) and his wife Peggy (Dublin) and Noel (Dublin) and his wife Agnes (Mayo). My mother and father, as regular readers of this Blog might know, were from Dublin and Kilkenny respectively.

Between the four couples there were ten children. Dermot had no brothers or sisters, the rest of us were groups of three. Peggy and Austin had three daughters. Noel and Agnes had a girl and two boys, the same combination as me and my siblings, but in reverse order (in their case, the girl was the eldest rather than the youngest). Their younger boy was the only one of us who was not a teenager yet. The rest of us ranged from 13 to 18.

One of the things that made the evening so memorable was that the ten of us had to keep out of the kitchen, where the grown-ups were eating.  For much of the evening my brother’s girlfriend was with us too. Theoretically she, my brother and Dermot, as the sixth-formers, were in charge, but it didn’t feel like that. We had never been left to ourselves before in such a big group.

All these years later I can’t remember exactly how we passed all those hours, just that we had clear instructions to stay out of the way, and we did our own thing. We had been reminded throughout the day that the clocks were going forward, so we were going to lose an hour’s sleep.

My brother and I shared a bedroom throughout our childhood, and we spent much of the evening in there, playing music. We had a record player and a radio-cassette recorder (which we used for taping songs from John Peel’s show on Radio 1 and Nicky Horne on Capital), and we had a range of instruments: the piano that was on its way to becoming hopelessly out-of-tune, and was given away when I was at university. We had two acoustic guitars, and my brother had recently acquired a red semi-acoustic that I especially enjoyed playing. There was also his clarinet, and the recorders we learnt to play at primary school. The room was big enough to accommodate all of us and music was being played for most of the evening, either recordings or some combination of us bashing away at the various instruments. At times all 11 of us were in there, at other times my sister and her friends were in her room.

Recently, discussing with my sister how she remembered the evening, she said, “Well, you went down the pub with Jim, didn’t you?” But I didn’t. Maybe he, his girlfriend and Dermot did pop out for a drink or two, either to the George IV or The Grove Park Tavern as it was then called. That was certainly their choice of venue for a Friday night out, when it hosted a Folk Club. If so, that would have left me nominally in charge of things, but not for long.

In general, many of the memories I have are very clear about exactly what happened, or the things people said, or the songs that were playing. My memories of this particular evening are not like that. They are more about how I felt, and how things looked: the wallpaper, the arrangement of our bedroom, the faces of our former classmates. We were all so much more grown-up than when we were at primary school, even the youngest boy, who was off to secondary school later that year. He had always been the baby of the bunch. He was just a toddler when the rest of us were at school, but he wasn’t much different from us now.

Even at the time this evening felt different, like a milestone on our way to adulthood. There was no drama, nobody got drunk, there were no blazing rows. It was just a group of families who had known each other for over a decade, and soon one of those families would be gone, returning home to Ireland. Unfortunately, one of our dinner guests left the scene even earlier: within three months, Noel had died of a heart attack, aged just 41. The four couples who made up my parents’ first and only dinner party would never sit round the same table again.

Noel’s funeral was the first that my brother, my sister and I ever attended, another milestone on our way to adulthood.

All these years later, Noel’s widow Agnes is the only one of the dinner party guests still alive. Nine of the ten children who were left to our own devices that evening are still alive and well. Dermot died in Dublin aged 47, many years after his parents. I can picture him, Anna and John, and the faces of the other eleven people who came to our place that evening, who left sometime after midnight, with reminders that we were losing an hour, so don’t forget to …

That’s what I think of when the clocks forward. I’m there now.


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