Posts for April, 2010

Aftermath

I don’t remember the War, only the effects of its passing – the tank traps on the beaches , the bomb sites in the cities. Hull was one of the closest ports to Germany and, therefore, one of the first places to suffer the Blitz. The centre of the city around Paragon Station was flattened, although the station itself miraculously survived. I recall most of the shops, including the big department stores, were in prefabricated buildings and the long terraces of houses had gaps like missing teeth. There was no rubble left. The empty sockets had all been cleaned out, leaving smooth, concrete pads, with bare brick walls on two or three sides.

All this damage made for a huge task in reconstruction and, by1950, this was in fill swing. If this was not an economic resurgence, then at least the country was moving again and the sense of activity and tangible progress led to a wave of optimism. I sometimes think that the Baby Boomers, whose formative years were spent in this brave new world, drew their unprecedented sense of self-confidence and personal privilege from this post war release of tension. Hence, came the sixties and the reinvention of London as the centre of modern culture.

The fortunes of my family took a turn for the better along with everyone else’s. By the end of1950, we had moved on from our house in Barkimgside to a white stucco place in Little Heath in a semi-rural setting. We had a big garden complete with beehives and fruit trees. We bought our first car. My parents switched their votes from Labour to Conservative. I was now attending William Talbot School, a more salubrious establishment than The Glade. My name was down for future enrolment at one of the minor public schools. We had come a long way in the five years since the War ended. Then my father died and everything changed.

My mother was left with a house still entangled in mortgage settlements from our old place, a car she couldn’t drive, an invention that was tantalisingly close to making money but never would, and an substantial insurance policy on my father’s life that the company wouldn’t pay out on because, although he had signed the forms and passed the medical (two days before he died), he hadn’t actually paid the first premium. Like many married women of her generation, she had no experience in financial matters and no prospect of  earning much over a minimal wage. She could have fallen to pieces. I think she almost did. Instead she took the advice of her sister, my Auntie Carole. She sold up and moved back north, to Bradford this time. This was not the best decision of her life.

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.