When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Sophie Grenham

Sophie Grenham on a visit to Hong Kong, 2016. Image credit: Eoin Rafferty

Sophie Grenham’s Journey to School

I had two childhoods. One was chiefly from infancy to my early teens in Hong Kong and the remainder was spent in my family’s native Dublin. Hong Kong, when I think of it, feels like a dream, as I’ve been in Ireland for so long. This thrumming, chaotic island in South-East Asia holds my precious earliest memories, particularly of my schooling. My family and I were part of a sizeable community of expatriates and locals who educated their children under the British system: my classmates were Chinese, English, American, Australian, Indian, Korean, Thai, Japanese. I enjoyed learning about a broad spectrum of cultures and customs which has contributed greatly to who I am today.

The typical arrangement for transport was that your school organised a bus to collect and deposit you for a fee, depending on your district. Ireland could do with this type of school bus system as I believe it would help ease traffic congestion at rush hour. My family and I lived in a crescent of apartments in a place called Chi Fu in the lush, green suburb of Pokfulam, which is close to the city centre but also quite quiet and self-contained. My primary and secondary schools were a mere twenty-minute drive away.

In my primary school, which is called Kennedy School, we had what you’d call a “bus mother.” To the best of my recollection, her name was Mrs Durrani, and she would have you believe that her job was the most important job in the whole world. She was a robust Indian woman with a big voice and a no-nonsense attitude. Her role was to keep track of all the children she was in charge of, to make sure they stayed in their seats and that they were collected and delivered home safely. Sometimes children forgot their stop and she’d remind them; once she cheekily joked to a child that if they didn’t get out, they’d have to go home with the bus driver and have some nice Chinese food for dinner. Despite being children of a vastly diverse city with much exotica to select and consume, some of us had woefully limited palettes. The suggestion of a Chinese meal was to imply that we might get chicken’s feet for our tea, which I sincerely doubt we would. In fact, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed dining with the driver and his family.

Sophie Grenham on her first day of school, 1988. Images credit: Mike Grenham

I was never exactly one of the cool kids who typically occupy the back seat, but that was where I sat with my friends in the large coach. Here we chattered about our little lives and played games. The main thing was not to be so loud as to grab the attention of Mrs Durrani: she was scary enough to shock us all into line. The truth is, she probably wasn’t scary at all. I think she loved us, really, but we (like many children throughout history) needed that sense of authority and structure.

After I finished primary school, there was another bus that brought us to and from West Island School, which was only up the road from Kennedy School. I can’t remember if we had a bus mother at that stage, but we certainly had supervision whenever we took field trips. Sometimes the bus mother would fall asleep and all sorts of messing would ensue – “truth or dare”, for instance. I’ll leave that part to your imagination. We also discovered the joys of Britpop and often sang Oasis songs at the back of the bus. Hong Kong was very in touch with British chart music and there was also fair access to teen magazines such as Smash Hits and Just Seventeen, which we pored over regularly. They were happy times in that humid, busy corner of the globe and I wouldn’t trade them.

The next phase came when my family relocated us back to our native Dublin and I had to start a new school – St Columba’s in Rathfarnham. Compared to Kennedy School and West Island School in Hong Kong, St. Columba’s was slightly more homogeneous: my classmates were mainly Irish with a smattering of pupils from Germany, France, Spain, Kenya and Nigeria, with the odd Romanian and Chinese. It is primarily a boarding school but I first attended as a day pupil.

The transition was much more difficult than I could have imagined. First of all, I had a tendency to say whatever was in my head. Combine this with acute culture shock, freezing weather, and entering a class in the latter half of the school year when all friendships had been made, and you have quite the shaky start. It took a long time to find level footing. For the first year and a bit, my father drove me in the mornings because there was no direct bus. I remember it took ages for him to clear fog from the windscreen, sometimes ice, then we’d climb into the cold car seats and Dad would insist on playing Gerry Ryan on RTÉ radio. I know Ryan was considered a national treasure but to 13-year-old me, he appeared to love the sound of his own voice. I wanted only to listen to music but Dad always won in the end. I suppose it’s only fair when you’re the one getting up at the crack of dawn to drive your daughter when you instead want to reap the rewards of early retirement.

Sophie Grenham on her first day of school, 1988. Images credit: Mike Grenham

When I asked to board at the school instead of attending as a day pupil, which meant I got home at 7pm some evenings, it made complete sense – why not sleep there? My father was very supportive of this decision, while my mother was less thrilled – he could enjoy many lie-ins from now on.

Sophie Grenham is a freelance arts journalist who has contributed widely to such publications as The Sunday Times Ireland, The Sunday Independent, The Irish Independent and The Irish Times. Her debut short story, “14”, was published in Tír na nÓg magazine’s inaugural issue in 2020.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.