THERE was a leading article in a newspaper some time ago describing the plight of many Irish people who went to work in Britain in the fifties. The article described the predicament of many of those now elderly, poor people, and the disgraceful lack of funds offered by the Irish state to help them. Chance saved me from becoming one of those unfortunate people.
I was born in 1935 and began factory work in Dublin at fourteen. In 1954, when I was nineteen I went to work in London. I had a great number of jobs in London, but my first was with the Craven A tobacco company in Camden town. I experienced much kindness in London. I had been used to being paid by the week in Dublin and I expected to be paid after a week's work in Craven A. I used most of my money to pay a month's advance and a deposit in a lodging house in Victoria. I was horrified when I was told I would be two weeks in the job before I could get an advance sub, and it would be four weeks before I got my first wage. I had to have enough money for the underground to get to work, but with that set aside I had very little money for food. My payment in the lodging house included a breakfast, and I ate as much as I could for breakfast. I could not afford to eat in the canteen in 'Craven A' but tea was free. One day I was putting six spoons of sugar into a cup of tea, when I saw some men at another table watching me. One came over to me. He said, 'Paddy, we know you are waiting for your sub. We will loan you five shilling but you have to pay it back'. That evening I bought a dinner in a cheap restaurant near the lodging house. I can still remember the enjoyment of that meal. My most unpleasant job in London was washing dishes three storeys below ground in the Cumberland Hotel. That was boring.
Once again, I changed countries and moved to Norway. I ran out of money in Norway when I was twenty-five. To be exact, I had ten kroner in my pocket, less than one pound. When I went to the youth hostel in Oslo and asked for a job, they gave me work washing dishes etc, and a room for a month. Towards the end of the month I got a two-month job with a food importers at the docks, carrying sacks. I could not remain in the main youth hostel, but there was an overflow hostel in another part of the city and I could stay there. The hostel had the usual practice of opening doors at seven in the morning and locking them at ten at night. This caused problems. My job at the food importers started at seven, and the street door of the overflow hostel was not unlocked until seven. My place of work was at the other end of the city. My alarm clock went off at six, in a dormitory with about thirty young men. Angry hostellers threw boots and whatever they could get hold of at me each morning. I dressed and then had to open a window and drop from the second storey to the street. The ground floor windows were covered with wire netting. Then I set off for work.
From 1961 to 1963 I could not get a steady job, nor a proper place to live. I lived rough. I lived for six months on an old trawler converted into a house boat, near the sewerage station on Oslo Fiord. I slept in a cupboard of an acquaintance who had a room connected with his work at the factory. I was chased from that place by a watchman and had to collect my things next day. I had to sleep several times in Frogner Park.
After two years I got a steady job in a meat factory and a room above the factory to live in. The room was tiny, but it was grand to have a definite place to live in. I did many evening courses in the Norwegian language and I eventually began to get freelance translation work. I worked for three years in The Indian Embassy in Olso in the early 1970s as a translator and interpreter. I began to write in the late sixties and sold my first short story in …