Cockburn's 'Broken Boy,' a Memoir of Survival

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn took a break from covering wars to write about his personal struggle. hide caption

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War correspondent Patrick Cockburn took a break recently from covering global conflicts to write about a life-and-death struggle of his youth. Cockburn is a polio survivor. The Broken Boy is his story.

Read an excerpt from The Broken Boy:

It is very easy to get polio.

I was six when I woke up with a headache and a sore throat in my bedroom in Brook Lodge, a crumbling Georgian mansion overlooking the Blackwater valley in County Cork. My forehead felt hot and the sheets were damp from sweat. My mother, Patricia Cockburn, took my temperature and asked Paddy McMahon, an elderly man who looked after the walled garden and our small herd of sheep, to bicycle into the town of Youghal a mile and a half away, to get a doctor. We owned no car and Paddy had been driving me in a horse and trap to the Loreto convent, a red-brick building on a hill overlooking Youghal bay, where the nuns were slowly teaching me to read and write. There was no phone in the house because, as my father Claud Cockburn said, it had "blown down in a financial blizzard, some years before."

Dr. John Gowen, a neatly dressed handsome man originally from England with a small practice in Youghal, arrived in his car at Brook Lodge two hours later. My mother had drawn the heavy mauve curtains across the windows and I was lying in the dark. On the white-painted ceiling high above I could see the brown stains where water had found its way in past winters through cracks in the nineteenth-century lead roof and had dripped into buckets and bowls hastily placed on the floor. I was excited by the tapping sound of the water falling into the metal pails. Dr. Gowen gently asked me about my headache and told me to roll up my pyjama jacket so he could listen to my chest with his stethoscope. I liked the feel of cold metal against my skin. He had treated me a year before when my mother had accidentally driven a garden fork through my toe when I was standing next to her, my wellington boots covered by earth, when she was planting strawberries in the garden. Dr. Gowden later told me that he found me shy and difficult to talk to, but if I appeared timid to him it was because I was not used to dealing with people apart from my family and the three servants: Paddy, my nanny Kitty Lee, and Norah Maloney, a cheerful woman who lived on a farm in the hills behind Brook Lodge.

The first signs of illness had appeared the previous day. Kitty had taken me for a walk to Youghal to visit my first cousin Shirley Arbuthnot, one year older than me, who lived in Myrtle Grove, a Tudor mansion within the ancient town walls where my mother had grown up. Sir Walter Raleigh had lived there briefly in the late sixteenth century. I had been told — and it is the sort of graphic tale that adults suppose will amuse children — it was here beneath the four giant yew trees outside the house, so old that their gnarled dark brown branches had grown into each other, that Raleigh had smoked the first pipe of tobacco in Europe. A maid, thinking the great explorer was on fire, had hurled a bucket of water over him. I was less interested in Raleigh than in using the swing which hung from one of the yew branches and playing with Shirley. But she had gone for a walk with her nanny and was nowhere to be found. Her mother Rosemary was there and noticed that I looked feverish. She put me and Kitty in her car, an elderly vehicle with wooden slats on the sides, and drove us back to Brook Lodge. My mother was very worried, though she did not send Paddy for the doctor until the next morning. She got a friend to phone my father, who was still in London, simply saying I was ill. He heard the telephone ringing as he returned to the house at 9:30 p.m. The message did not say exactly what was wrong with me but it did not have to. He immediately flew to Dublin, hired a car to drive the couple of hundred miles to Youghal and arrived home just before the doctor appeared.

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