Posts for ‘1942 – 1955’

A Death in the Family

My father died on 1st April, 1951. It was a Sunday morning and he was working in the garden. He came inside and told my sister, Janet – the only other person home at the time – that he wasn’t feeling well and that he was going upstairs to lie down. She said she would make him a cup of tea. By the time she took it up to him he was dead. It was a coronary thrombosis.

My mother, my younger sister, Bridget, and I had gone up north to Bradford to visit an aunt and uncle. It was midday or thereabouts. We were in the middle of Sunday dinner. It’s strange how the memory works. We had no premonition of what was to come but I have a clear image of what was going on just before we got the news.

I am sitting at one end of the table, my Uncle Edgar opposite me at the other end. Auntie Carole is to my left, my mother and Bridget to my right. We are enjoying ourselves. Auntie Carole is a high-spirited woman and she likes fooling around, making jokes and teasing people. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door or maybe it’s a doorbell, I’m not sure about that. The grown-ups go quiet. Perhaps, it’s odd to have a visitor at this time. Perhaps it’s odd to have unexpected visitors at all. My uncle gets up from the table. The rest of us continue eating and fooling around. We are more subdued now, though. My uncle comes back. Something is clearly wrong now. He asks my mother if he can talk to her. They go out.

The next thing I remember is going into the front room – a strange place with walls like icing sugar, more a tribute to my uncle’s skills as a plasterer than anything meant to be lived in. My mother is sitting on a sofa. She is hunched forward, her face contorted.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask her.

‘Daddy’s dead.’ She makes a strange noise, part sob, part cry of pain.

My sister starts to scream. She runs to our mother. We both do. She puts her arms round us. I feel terror. Terror and helplessness and a strange sense of dislocation as if I am coming loose from everything.

Then we are in a car and it is night time. I think we are going to Hull where my mother’s parents live. I am sitting with her in the back seat. I guess Bridget is there, too. My mother is distraught.

            ‘What am I going to do?’ she says.

‘I’ll look after you,’ I tell her.

We stop somewhere in the dark. It might be Reighton, where my other grandparents are. I don’t know who goes inside but I’m not one of them. Outside the car window is a clump of trees and the village pond where the khaki campbells used to be. There is moonlight in the branches.   

In times of family crisis people make mistakes. I was victim of one. I did not return to London with my mother and sister. I didn’t go to my father’s funeral. Instead, I went back to Bradford to stay with my aunt and uncle. Once we were there, my aunt did not know what to do with me. I have never felt so alone, either before or since.

I remember going into town with her on the top deck of a blue bus. She bought me a box of paints. Maybe we bought books too. There was one book – a Boys Own kind of thing – about pilots in the World War I. It had a picture of the climax of a dogfight:  a German plane exploding in a huge flash while the British hero flew nimbly out of the way.  The picture was in black and white but I could picture that explosion in my mind. I became fascinated with it. I copied it onto a piece of paper and painted it in orange and red and yellow. Maybe I painted bits of the destroyed plane, too, I don’t remember. All I can see in my mind’s eye now is the flash itself.

Many years later, shortly before she died, I asked my mother why I had been left out of things. She said she didn’t know. At the time she had been in such a state that she was not capable of deciding anything. I figured then it must have been Auntie Carole’s idea. Maybe she believed I needed to be protected from the upset of the funeral. Maybe she just wanted to feel that she was doing something useful in a situation where everyone felt helpless.

Eventually I went back to London, I don’t remember how. I just have an image of standing in the living room in our house in Ilford and my mother saying ‘He’s not coming back.’ That was the first moment I really felt it, the vast emptiness that is grief.

My Father

My father was one of those men who, in practical matters, could do anything. He was a plumber and electrician by trade. In the 1920s, when public radio broadcasting first began, he built one of the first receivers in Hull. During WWII, he kept a garden that provided most of the food for our family of five. He built elaborate toys for me and for my sisters; in my case there was three foot model of a windmill and a railway engine, with a welded metal boiler and wooden wheels, big enough for three or four kids to ride on. He was also an inventor.

He must have come up with the idea of the Trijet sometime in the late forties before we moved to London. It was not, as the name might suggest, a new method of propulsion but a garden and horticultural irrigation system. The idea is common enough these days – a single pipe to carry the water and jets screwed into it at intervals to deliver a spray over the plants. Now such a thing is made out of plastic; back then it was metal. The jets themselves were brass and I can remember him making them in his workshop.

Each was hollow and maybe an inch long, with a hexagonal cross section. There was a thread at on end to screw it into the pipe and a screw at the other end, which might have been to adjust the flow. Cut into the sides were three slots through which the water sprayed out in a horizontal fan.

I still have a lengthy correspondence dealing with the Trijet, including the letters patent from the British Patent Office. It seems that the idea generated a lot of enthusiasm within the Cottingham Growers Association, who wanted to place a substantial order. Arrangements were made for W. H. Simmons, the firm my father worked for, to manufacture the jets. Then he died and it all collapsed. W. H Simmons went broke as did the Cottingham Growers Association. My mother, who might have expected a little income from the enterprise, got nothing.

I remember my father mostly in his workshop. He would be standing at the bench doing what he was doing and I would be on the floor doing my work. I had my own set of tools and as we went about our business we would talk. We were mates, working together. He was Bill and I was Joe.     

Of course, I idolised him, as little boys do with their fathers and perhaps later I came to idealise him. One of the few photos I have is a polyphoto portrait with the focus just a little blurred. It shows a handsome man, with slicked back hair, gazing into the distance with a noble, slightly unfocussed expression. JREPerhaps only the large ears spoil the overall effect. Given that he died when I was eight, I have very little to go on in assessing his character except my mother’s reminiscences. He was tolerant, it seemed, someone who never lost his temper, a loving husband and father with a strong sense of duty. He worked too hard. My mother had a theory that it was the stress of work that killed him and she might have been right.

After the break up of my first marriage I did a period of counselling to try and get my head straight. One of the things I explored was my relationship with my father. The counsellor used a role playing technique. I pretended to be him and she interviewed me. She began with some straight forward questions, to which I gave matter of fact answers. Then we got on to the subject of his first marriage, something I knew almost nothing about. Suddenly, I felt a huge wave of grief. It seemed as if he had never got over the death of his young wife and had kept his feelings to himself throughout his marriage to my mother. Now they were coming out through me.

It was a strange experience because, on one level, I knew no more than the bare facts of that relationship and I had not even known those until after he died. Could I have intuited his feelings even though I was entirely ignorant of the circumstances? Whatever the source of this insight, I felt as if, for the first time, I was beginning to understand him.

Of course, there is another, more rational explanation. I was not feeling his grief but my own, which I was projecting onto him. If this is so, then I learnt nothing at all about him except that I had never got over his death and, perhaps, still wasn’t coping with it.

From a therapeutic perspective, it probably doesn’t matter either way. The truth about my father is what I believe. I tend to resist these relativistic interpretations but the only alternative is to stick to the facts; in which case there is almost nothing left of him: a name in a few records, a handful of photographs, a half a dozen pieces of paper. What it was like to be him has gone except for the traces that remain reflected in our memories. My memories have changed because of what I experienced in that counselling session. They have a different tone to what they had before.

My Diary

I remember little about my first school. I don’t think it gave me much apart from a lifelong loathing for turnips. These were a frequent component of school dinners and came as a pinky-orange mess, along with mashed potatoes, some sort of meat and gravy, and a wet, green substance that might have been cabbage. My problem was that you were not allowed to have any pudding – soggy and sweet and doused in thin, pale custard – until you had eaten your first course. My lasting memory of Cottingham School is sitting with a plastic beaker of water in one hand and a fork in the other, eating turnip, sipping water to dilute the taste, and trying not to gag.

I don’t remember having anything else against the place but I can’t have been happy. I got into the habit of packing it in at morning playtime and going home. This involved a good mile walk – the length of Hallgate, down Eppleworth Road and along St Margaret’s Ave. My mother was not pleased to see me, given that she had a two mile walk to take me back again. She was good about it, though. She even took my behaviour as a kind of compliment. The reason I kept leaving school was, she decided, because I was bright; the lessons bored me. This might have been true. Another explanation was that I was feeling rejected. My father was away at his new job in London and I had a baby sister at home who was now the centre of my mother’s attention.

Whatever the case, that first year was not a success. When we finally followed my father down south and I began attending my new school in Barkingside, they found I couldn’t read. My mother was astonished. Reports from Cottingham had indicated I was doing well. I was surprised too. As far as I was concerned, reading consisted of turning the pages of a book while reciting a story. The pictures in the book were prompts as to which bit of the story came next. How was I expected to read these strange new books when no one had told me what the stories were?

I liked The Glade Primary School. It was only a few hundred yards from home but I don’t think I ever availed myself of the opportunity to leave early. My school report for the term ending 19/12/49 records that my behaviour was ‘Good’ and that my work had ‘shown some improvement’. Moreover, I scored 9 out of 10 for reading. Only my composition (18 out of 30) and my arithmetic problems (22 out of 40) let me down. I came 19th out of a class of 41, a safe place to be.

The mediocrity of my composition was largely down to a daily exercise called ‘My Diary’ in which we were supposed to record the events of our lives.  I found this an excruciating task, almost as loathsome as eating turnips.  Faced with the heading awkwardly scratched in blue black ink in my exercise book, I felt nothing but an awful blankness.  What did my life consist of?  Swimming at the pool with my sisters, playing with my clockwork train set, going down to the buddleia bush at the corner of our street to catch butterflies: couched in such terms these experiences meant nothing.  They were drained of all significance.  I was, of course, incapable of capturing what they really meant to me – the strange blue coldness of the water in the pool, my complete absorption in the construction of a railway, the wonder and the lust for possession I felt at the red admirals and the peacocks fluttering round the long drooping clusters of pale mauve flowers.  My Diary forced me to stop and look at myself from the outside and acknowledge the truly insignificant creature that I was.   

Eventually, I solved the problem by a simple expedient.  I started to invent things.  There was nothing fanciful about these phoney entries.  I was either too judicious or too unimaginative to come up with anything obviously untrue.  I wrote, for example, about how my goldfish had died, even though I had no goldfish.  I had seen a dead one somewhere, though, floating upside down in its tank.  From this point My Diary became tolerable, even in a perverse way enjoyable.   I knew that I was lying and that this was wrong but I was willing to risk either God’s or my teacher’s wrath in order to avoid the possibility of judgement.  Paradoxically I was risking one kind of exposure to avoid another.

An Unlucky Family

I come from an unlucky family. We tend to lose people. This is, generally, because they die, often before their time. My grandfather, my father, my mother, my stepfather, and one of my sisters have all been married twice and not a divorce among them. On top of that, two of my sisters and I have both lost children. Maybe there is a family curse. If so, it comes down from my father’s side and although it doesn’t begin with my father, because people seemed to have been getting prematurely lost for a generation of two before his, he seems to be the focus of it.

In 1929, or thereabouts, he married Mabel Felgate, a beautiful young woman who he met through the local church. They taught Sunday School together. Within a few years, they had two daughters, Janet and Judith. Barely three years after that, Mabel was dead, carried off by leukaemia or pernicious anaemia, as it was then called. My father, aged thirty, was left a widower with two pre-school children. Fortunately, his mother was available to help out. Unfortunately, two years later, she, too, was dead, of a heart attack this time.

In January 1938, my parents were married at Kings Hall, a Methodist Church in Fountain Road, Hull. My mother is listed on the marriage certificate as having no occupation; I guess her job as shop assistant for W H Smith didn’t count. She was 24 and now took on the role of step-mother to a five-year-old and a six-year-old. I’m not sure why she did it, to be honest. We’ll call it love.

Whatever the reason, I was born almost five years later and my youngest sister Bridget five years after that. When Bridget was three and I was eight, however, our father died of a coronary thrombosis. My mother, now aged 37, who had still never had an occupation that anyone would write on a certificate, was left with four legal dependants: their ages 19, 18, 8, and 3.

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Twenty years later, on the other side of the world, she got married again, to Harry Clifford, a widower with a nine-year-old son.

All these permutations have left me with two half-sisters, a sister, and a step-brother – the kind of arrangement that gives the people who draw family trees a headache.

For much of my growing up I was ignorant of these complexities. This was a good thing in one way; it meant there was never any question that Janet and Judith were my sisters, pure and simple. To the modern mind, though, such lack of openness is a peculiar and unhealthy trait. Was there anything to be ashamed of? Surely not. And yet, if there wasn’t, why keep quiet about it?

I remember an incident just after my father died. We were cleaning up in preparation for moving north from London back to Yorkshire. I can picture the darkness of the room where I am kneeling on the hearthrug in front of a blazing fire. Janet is on my left, my mother on my right. Between them is a pile of papers. They are going through them, sorting them out, feeding the fire with the ones that aren’t needed. I’m watching the paper catch and flare and turn black and then grey. Some of the grey bits, fringed with tiny red sparks, float up the chimney.

Suddenly, Janet says to my mother, ‘Shall I tell him?’ She has a piece of paper in her hand.

‘No,’ my mother says.

There is a tense little moment and then everything goes back to the way it was.

I say nothing. I let it go. I know something important has just passed by but you don’t question things in my family. You wait patiently, trusting you’ll find out in the fullness of time.

I found out three or four years later. The answer was in a book that I had had on my shelf for several years – a copy of Tennyson’s collected poems. Inside was an inscription. I can’t remember the precise wording but it was something to do with the marriage or the engagement of John Else and Mabel Felgate. I was horrified. It was as if I’d discovered some dirty secret – incest or something equally nasty. No doubt some of this reaction was down to the peculiar sensibilities of an eleven-year-old but some, too, probably arose from my shock at realising I’d been kept in the dark.

I didn’t mention my discovery, of course. I kept it to myself. The odd thing was, though, that my mother somehow found out that I knew. Maybe I left the book out on my desk and she read the inscription for herself. Whatever the reason, she began to avert openly to my father’s first marriage, as if it had been common knowledge all along. It seemed that it was not the events that were the problem but the initial telling of them, the awkwardness of the moment of revelation.  The longer you leave something, the harder it is to speak of it. I guess there was never a right time.

Dickie

Early memories are curious things: discrete spots of awareness in the dark of unconsciousness. It is as if we splutter into life like a fire taking hold.

The first memory I can date is of my third birthday. My paternal grandparents gave me a canary. It came in an oblong wooden box pasted over with printed white labels. For a long time afterwards I believed it came in the mail but that really can’t be right. I still remember the delight of opening the box (I think there was something like a sliding or a hinged door) and finding a bird – lemon yellow with white wings. We were inspired and called him Dickie.

Other things I remember from those early years are making igloos out of the upturned halves of grapefruit, dumping snow on the hot stove and watching it sizzle, and eating dirt. The last is a vivid moment. I can still feel the tentative anticipation and curiosity as I put the dark, grainy stuff in my mouth. I can’t describe the taste. A few years ago, though, I was in the garden when I remembered that early moment and did it again – put a bit of dirt in my mouth. There was one of those little shocks of recognition like a short circuit back to the reality of the past. So I can tell you for sure that New Zealand dirt tastes the same as British dirt.

The memory that means the most to me, though, is from a time when I was still small enough to be washed in the kitchen sink. I am sitting there with my feet in the warm water and my mother is bathing me with a flannel. It is dusk. The light has a grey, grainy quality. Maybe it is wartime still and we are slow to turn the lights on because that would mean drawing the blackout curtains. We are letting it get dark. Then the door opens and my father comes in from outside. He has honeycomb from one of the beehives and he gives me some to taste. I crush the little wax cells with my tongue and the sweetness floods through my mouth.

There is a story in my family about bees – an incident I don’t remember. We had two or maybe three hives up at the end of our garden and I was fascinated by the comings and goings. One day, so I’m told, I took a hammer up there and as the bees came in and out, landing and taking off from the running board of the hive, I tapped them with the hammer. (I guess someone must have come along later and reconstructed these events from the crushed corpses and the discarded hammer). The bees naturally got upset. I must have realised fairly quickly that I was in trouble because I managed to get a head start on them. My mother was fond of describing how I came hurtling down the garden path and through the open back door, which she slammed shut behind me. The bees in a great swarm, according to her account, descended on the window in the door so thick that they blocked out the light. I guess I was stung. If I was, though, it did not make me scared of bees. I keep a rag of a promise to myself to get a hive one day. Barbara isn’t keen, though.

Dickie, incidentally, lived a good ten or a dozen years. Eventually, because we were moving around so much, we gave him to my maternal grandparents. There he stayed, in the spare room in a brass cage like a ball about half a metre across. There wasn’t much company, only my grandfather coming in every day to feed him and have a chat, but there was a view out of the window over the back yard and the tenfoot and a big drainage ditch, which in local parlance was call a dike. Beyond that was a green playing field. Dickie never said much. He didn’t ever sing, just gave out a cheep or two from time to time. I guess that means he wasn’t a he after all.