Built by Books 1
Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss mystic, psychotherapist and
religious philosopher, said that humour is man’s only divine gift
because with humour a man can make tragedy into an occasion
I agree. Humour is a divine gift – but it is not the only divine
gift: there’s a second, the imagination, a truly remarkable
faculty that allows us to relive our pasts, or to picture events
or places or people that we have never known, and in that way
discover what it is to live as someone else.
My family – my mother Edna, my father Ernest, my younger
brother Sasha, and myself, Karl (I didn’t start using Carlo until
I went to boarding school many years later) – emigrated from
Dublin when I was four years old.
On 4 November 1958, without prior warning, without
notification or consultation, a pantechnicon van came to the
house in Dublin, the family’s furniture was loaded into the
back and that evening, at North Wall, Dublin Port, we boarded
the ferry for Wales. We reached Holyhead in the early hours of
5 November. I remember descending the swaying gangplank,
moving down the quay and onto the platform where the train
to Euston waited, then getting into our compartment, with its
dusty seats and sliding door onto the corridor that ran down the
side of the carriage.
I am sure I slept as we steamed through Wales but I was
awake by the time we got to England and I remember we went
to the dining car. Exciting clouds of soot and steam billowed
past the windows, and there was an intoxicating smell of
burning coal. I remember the cook coming to our table and
forking bacon straight from a blackened frying pan onto our
plates (you wouldn’t get that now: Health and Safety wouldn’t
have it) and then – this was the high point – being given by
the waiter (not the cook) miniature jars of Tiptree jam and
marmalade, with the black-and-white labels and the metal
screw tops exactly like those on the full-sized jars. I kept those
treasures for months.
Later that day, we got out at Euston and took a taxi all the
way to Morden, a suburb at the end of the Northern Line, and
entered our new house, a thirties semi on Cannon Hill Lane,
SW20. By late afternoon I was standing in the suburban garden,
listening to bangers exploding on Cannon Hill Common, the
great muddy expanse of green that stretched in front of our
new house. I had no idea what I was hearing.
In front of me, beyond our back fence, which was brown
with creosote, I was aware of someone at work. I went down
and looked over. It was a man. I’d say he was younger than I
took him to be because in the 1950s everyone looked older
than they were. He had hair combed back, probably held in
place with Brylcreem, and a pointy face. He was lithe and quite
small and he gave an impression of energy as he bustled around
‘Hello,’ he said, as I peered over the fence. He had what I’d
come to know later as a South London working-class accent.
‘It’s Guy Fawkes. You excited?’
No, I wasn’t. Guy Fawkes didn’t exist in Ireland. The name
meant nothing to me. I looked back at him, blank, saying nothing.
‘We’re having a bonfire tonight,’ he added, ‘and fireworks’.
On cue a rocket appeared in the grey London sky overhead,
whooshed along for a bit and then exploded. Marvellous balls
of green and red were scattered through the air, where they
shone and scintillated for an instant, then vanished.
The man chuckled. ‘Someone can’t wait’ he said.
If we did talk any more, and we might have, I can’t remember,
I can no longer see the sticky damp fence and Mr Winifred, for
that was what our neighbour was called. What I see now in my
mind’s eye is something that happened a bit later.
I was looking back up the garden towards our new house as
my brother, on his tricycle, pedalled along the concrete path,
his thin bare legs (he was in shorts) moving like pistons. I
stepped back to let him pass. At the same time I felt the tubes
in my chest swelling so that their gauge shrank, then heard the
wheeze that came out as I tried to breathe. I sucked very hard.
The wheeze became a roar. I felt dizzy.
My brother passed. I heard the clatter of the chain and the
rumble of his tricycle’s solid rubber wheels. I put my hands on
my knees and locked my arms. My ‘chestiness’ – asthma – was
back. It usually came from house dust or blankets or horses
(still common in Dublin) but that afternoon, though I didn’t
understand it then, it came from sadness.
Everything I had known was lost and I was in this new,
unfamiliar world that, so far, did not seem congenial or
comprehensible. It was one of my earliest experiences of pain
produced by separation and loss, for which the only remedy
was recollection, and for that I had to have an imagination.
There was no other way to retrieve what was gone except to
imagine it, and in the months following I brooded endlessly on
our red brick house in Dublin, with its monkey puzzle tree, its
slips of coloured glass in the windows on the staircase return
and in the bedrooms, its blood-red carpets and its long garden
with the unruly gooseberry bush around which I used to chase,
chanting mantras and spells.
The next thing I remember about our arrival in London is
this. I was asleep in the back bedroom of our new home. My
mother woke me early. There was something we had to do and
we were late. We dressed, had breakfast, then put on our coats
and hats. She opened the front door and we hurried out into
the dense fog blanket (it was actually smog) that covered South
My mother began to rush down the hill – our house was
at the top. I had to trot to keep up with her. The pavement
was slippery. The fog muffled the usual morning sounds
of husbands calling goodbye, banging their front doors and
whistling as they walked off to work, and water drops running
off the oaks that lined the street and plopping onto the ground.
Just then, a car crawled by, its headlamps like twin suns. It
vanished into the thick yellow and grey smog, and then the
only sounds were our shoes on the slippery paving stones.
At the bottom we turned into Cherrywood Lane. My mother
continued walking fast. Several minutes later we passed
through a dripping gateway. I was breathless and I had a stitch.
Next thing, I was in a classroom. My mother was gone. There
was a smell of wax floor polish and Plasticine. I saw little girls
in dresses and little boys in shorts. Each child was scratching
away with a bit of white chalk on a slate.
A woman teacher in a purple woollen skirt and a jersey gave
me a slate and a piece of chalk. She told me to sit on the floor.
Then she crouched beside me. She seemed nice. She tugged
at the pearls around her neck. I noticed that my mother was
gone but I didn’t mind. The teacher wrote ‘Karl Gébler’ and
the date. She showed me how to hold the chalk.
I began to copy what she had written. Then I stopped and
put the chalk into my mouth. It was dusty and it sucked out all
‘Right,’ said the teacher, ‘we’re going to play shop.’
A girl called Wendy was chosen as shopkeeper. She put on a
brown coat and stood behind the counter in the scaled-down
shop. I bought plastic tinned peas, bread, cornflakes and butter.
I paid with a plastic threepenny bit.
Without warning, a boy hit another child. Then the assailant
lay on the floor and began to scream while the victim whimpered.
A man with bandy legs and a crooked nose appeared. This was
Mr Woodall, the caretaker. He picked up the bad boy rather
than the victim and carried him away to Nurse in the sickroom.
Later, a different boy vomited. He went to the sickroom
too. Mr Woodall sprinkled sawdust and sand on the sick, then
scooped it up with a wide flat shovel. Afterwards he mopped
the floor, using hot water cloudy with disinfectant.
‘Gather round, boys and girls,’ said the teacher, ‘and sit on
We gathered and sat, far from the vomit spot, and she
opened a book and began to read. Her English voice was
clear and smooth. The book was called The Borrowers and
concerned a family of tiny people, Homily, Pod and Arrietty.
They lived in an old house behind the wainscoting. They were
called Borrowers because they borrowed things from the big
people, things like drawing pins, pencils and paper. As the
teacher read, I saw the Borrowers inside my head, tiny figures
lugging filched rubber bands and toast crusts, thread bobbins
As soon as I got home, I ran into our dining room and
scooted under the sideboard. At some point when I’d explored
the house I had noticed that the wainscoting was loose under
‘Hello,’ I called, through the gap at the top.
My mother came and asked what I was doing.
I explained how the Borrowers were in there and I was
calling to them to come out and play. They didn’t but I don’t
remember being disappointed. I think I reasoned that they
didn’t emerge because I was so big and they were so small.