Saturday, 12 July 2014

My parents.

I posted the photographs of my parents (yesterday) onto my facebook page - my siblings, a couple of my cousins and a few friends from school saw them and made the usual noises. They are really nice images - and all staged or professionally taken - nothing like the hurried, digital images we see today - or instagram shots that have been fake aged and placed within a fuzzy halo of sepia with artfully applied scratches and creases. They are the real thing - the shot of my mother in her office on the Mildenhall air base is a press shot - the studio pictures of my father were taken as mementos to give his family when he left home to go into the army - so they had time, effort and patience embedded into them - as well as some personal value. I thought it was interesting that everyone who knew my parents and commented on the pictures had different memories, partly influenced by these images, and even my siblings have differing perspectives on our childhood - quite different to mine.

My mother was born in North Wales - one of 7 children, only one a brother. Her mother was a housewife - her father a painter and decorator. Recently my brother told me that he had been an alcoholic - I don't particularly remember him - he died when I was about 7 or 8. My grandmother was a fierce woman and quiet cold - but enjoyed being the centre of attention. She developed a senile condition when I was about 18 or 19, at the first indication she was whisked off to a home and died shortly afterwards - that's how it was then - no lingering about. I can't remember if my mother was born in '33 or '36 - she remembered the war quite well - German planes would sweep over North Wales on their way to bomb Liverpool and she once told me that she had seen a cow being machine gunned by a German fighter pilot. I took her word for it. A large family on a limited income in a very small house sounds like a disaster - and I think that all her siblings were wise to develop strong personalities very quickly - or they might just disappear - they all looked the same, tall - lean, strong features, all healthy, smart enough and hard working - in fact none of them ever really retired, very active, robust people who normally never became ill. My mother fell off a swing and had some kind of small internal hemorrhage when she was a child - the description or the treatment she gave me was lurid and very much a pre-NHS scenario. Apart from that - there was never any illness.

My mother left home in her teens - a fairly sketchy period that she never talked about - there are photographs of her at parties, day's out in London or playing golf on the salt marshes - and one society snap of her in Cheshire Life at a gala event being squired by a very good looking man in a sharp suit. She was tall, slim, well dressed and smarter than most girls - and had a lot of boyfriends. At some point - she put herself through a ladies college and trained to be a librarian. This brought her into contact with a very different class of woman - middle class, educated, bored and wealthy - girls treading water until they married. My mother seemed to enjoy this time and made a lot of friends 'above' her station. On one occasion she was staying in London with a friend called Annabelle Gowing, in a house off Tavistok Square (I accidental found myself there recently - very odd feeling). She had her own room and was 'dressing for dinner' when the phone rang - assuming it was her and not realising it was the outside line - she answered - and was promptly told off by a member of the staff. She was so embarrassed she went out of the house for a long walk - finding herself on Oxford Street she spent the evening window shopping - and was promptly arrested for soliciting by an over zealous police man who had probably never met anyone so naive before - she had to call the Gowing house for help and told me that the humiliation stayed with her all her life.

After college - she worked in library services and eventually found herself seconded into the USAF as a uniformed civilian worker - running their library services and camp entertainments - in those days - Lakenheath and Mildenhall were nuclear air bases and high security - she loved it, very exciting times - with large transport planes, jet bombers and on one occasion a U2 spy plane on camp. There were regular war games and much politicking - I suspect these were the happiest times of her life - the people she mixed with were classless Americans, the wives being just as educated and involved as their husbands - many were black and she was exposed to culture and a social environment that would not normally have been possible in 1950's Britain. I also think that wearing a uniform was a great social leveller and she took full advantage of that.

I have a lot of her stuff from this period. Papers, photographs and hundreds of letters. She had a few American boyfriends - one was killed in a crash - one very serious one who wanted to marry her and continued to write for many years. There were darker times, crew were regularly killed (conflict abroad - accidents) and one of her duties was managing the correspondence with the families. There was an occasion when she was supposed to send the last effects of an airman back to his parents but couldn't bring herself to return the watch he was wearing as it had been smashed to pieces, so she kept it herself. On another occasion she saw several men she knew killed in a fire after a bad landing.

I think she would have been happy to stay in the USAF, she had respect, prestige and a full social life - but something happened, she never talked about it herself but I recently read a letter from her superior officer that alluded to an incident that had cost her job. Essentially - my mother was a manic depressive, had been all her life - capable of alarming hysteria and crippling melancholia - at that time I think it was a fairly infrequent occurrence - but like may people of her generation - rather than seek crude and barbaric medical attention (lobotomy, electric shock, institutionalisation) she self medicated with alcohol - which may have made her feel better - but actually made her much worse.

After the USAF (whatever happened - from the letter I read there was clearly no way back - she didn't even get a reference) she moved into the hotel business and became general manager of a place called The Dog and Partridge in Tewksbury - eventually employing, starting a relationship with - and marrying the man who would become my father.

My father was born in Spain - his family were from a mining village and his father was killed in a work related accident when he was a child - his mother became a diabetic after the trauma - and then brought up him and his brother alone. There were some cousins - one who was 'not normal' and apparently drowned in a puddle of just 3 inches of water. There was some conflict between my father and his brother - I think it had to do with politics, my father being very left leaning and his brother right. As soon as he was able - my father joined the army and seems to have been quite content - eventually moving on to work in the hospitality trade allover Europe - from country to country - learning languages, working in restaurants and hotels - with no interest in going home - although I have been told that there was a girl that he had an 'understanding' with - and he sent most of his salary home to his mother, a mistake - because she then gave it to his feckless, stay at home brother, who spent it. This created much trouble later on.

The happiest time of my fathers life was probably in Switzerland - working in the restaurant of the First Class lounge at Zurich airport - back then - all the world passed through the airport on the way to their ski resort tax havens - his job was to cook at the table for people ordering steaks and similar - so he met everyone from Liz Taylor ( who he promptly fell deeply in love with) and Tyrone Power  (apparently a very nice man but 'very ugly daughter'). He was there for some years before moving to England to learn English - and found himself being employed by, and subsequently falling in love with my mother.

My parents married on Valentines day, 1966 - my mother was already 5 months pregnant. They seemed to have spent some time living in Wolverhampton, before making the most phenomenal, stupid and inexplicable mistake imaginable - they decided to move to the claustrophobia my mothers home town.

Firstly - to a flat above a laundrette in Chester, the business belonged to her sister and her sisters first husband - but apparently there was some incident - I think the husband made a pass at my mum, and they moved on - to a tiny house in an area that was little more than a slum, and then onto a new council house in Blacon, just outside Chester - a town build specifically for social housing. My mother worked nights at the Odeon Cinema in Chester and my father found a job at British Steel that was little more than manual labour - but their focus seemed to be on stability - as I was soon joined by a brother and sister. After a few years - they were able to engineer a grant to buy a good sized Victorian house in Connah's Quay - the old schoolmasters house from the village school my mother had attended as a child - paying just over £4000. The house was a wreck and they spent many years 'doing it up' - with mixed success, a succession of cowboy builders and the crime of stripping out all the original features and 'modernising' badly.The house was nice and warm, a good size, we all had our own bedrooms and a small yard at the back. One of my mothers teachers from school lived next door (Mr Francis) and you could hear him playing the piano through the walls.

During this period - almostall of my mothers family lived within a short walk, and the politics were pretty grim, they were mostly as competitive and abrasive with each other as they had been as children - and underneath a  thin veneer of niceness, there were decades of simmering resentment. Someone was always having a row with someone else - and I strongly felt that were were just on the outside of everything. My parents marriage had never been very successful - they could seem happy for a while then have spectacular rows that would lead to weeks, sometimes months of silence between them. My father wasn't at all happy in England, the 70's were a decade of casual racism and although he was popular and well liked, he was 'different'. During the 3 day week he sent my mother to Spain with my baby sister so that she could be christened - but also because he was appalled at the state of the country. I still remember eating my cold dinner by candle light.

My mother tried to retain the airs and graces she's learned in the real world - but these just set her apart and caused tension. Her mental state was usually good when she was engaged in something - but could spiral out of control with the slightest provocation - I think my dad was used to it, he wasn't a very talkative person and I've always felt that they would both have been happier if they hadn't married - but he was too honourable to leave her with a child.

My mum always worked - for a long time as company secretary for a busy double glazing firm, and then as a 'settler' for a chain of bookmakers - manually calculating the bets - before computers and calculators. She was always good at what she did and worked hard. One time - a man walking into the bookmakers and pointed a shotgun in her face and told her that if she ever accepted money from his gambling addicted son again, he's kill her.

Some time in the late '70s my father began to suffer from stomach problems - for several years the doctor would insist he was making it up - then he was treated for diverticulitis, and eventually diagnosed with colon cancer. The period of several when he was misdiagnosed was in some ways fairly useful - he was still able to borrow money, get mortgages and insurance. After 6 months on strike when British Steel went into free fall - my parents were able to buy a tenancy on a pub in Overton-on-Dee - even though my father was already dying, he was 'fit' on paper.

He lived for about another year - died horribly from cancer of the colon, liver, spine and brain, and was buried in North Wales. His brother refused to come to the funeral - even though my mother offered to pay for him to come. My mother stayed in the pub for about another year but was useless at it - relying on bad staff, not managing the money, drinking far too much and generally very depressed. In another insane fit of mania - she sold the tenancy at a loss and bought a corner shop just a few doors away from our family home - something that she was totally useless at, at the exact moment that corner shops were starting to close all over the country - and pretty much lost everything. Somehow she was able to get a council house nearby and moved there with my sister and brother. I'd left the previous August at 17 and moved to London, I could have gone to college in Liverpool and was keen on the idea - but I would have been forced to live at home - and I wanted to get as far away as possible - which probably sounds ruthless, but it was the only chance I was going to get - if I'd stayed, it would have destroyed me. In her illness - my mother could be very difficult, demanding, abusive and unmanageable. She probably had a great deal to be angry about in her life - but made the mistake of taking that anger out on the people closest to her. Over the years I did what I could to help - but it was a one way street, For years I'd sent her more money than I could afford to pay her mortgage and bills (she pulled herself together long enough to buy the house) - eventually finding out she'd regularly spent it all on alcohol - and there were frequent financial 'emergencies', real or imagined (dental bills, new heating etc). Eventually she had a fall and broke her hip, and although she could have walked again if she wanted to - decided that being an invalid suited her better - spending the next few years declining into a smaller and smaller space. She needed full time care eventually - and could be really difficult - I regularly had to change my phone number because she's call in the night and scream at me - on one occasion - she telephoned every design agency in London accusing them of kidnapping me until eventually finding someone who knew me ( that person was very kind and understanding about the whole situation and I've been grateful to her for that all my life - but it was a frequent occurrence.) In the end - I had to have her sectioned (twice, actually) - and at that moment - things seemed to change - the shift from clinical to psychiatric care was phenomenal - and she became better managed and better behaved, I was also advised to step away and take less of a role - or at least stop feeling that I was in some way responsible. Advice that, in all probability, saved my life.

My mother died about 8 years ago - she had for some time decided she didn't want to use her left hand and kept it balled into a fist - the tendons atrophied, the fingernails grew into her palm and became infected. We managed to arrange an ambulance to take her to see a specialist in Chester - getting her to leave her sheltered accommodation was very difficult as she would assume that she was being taken back to the mental ward again - when the ambulance arrived - it was 30 mins late, the traffic to Chester was heavy and we arrived exactly three minutes late for our appointment. The specialist refused to see us (his lunch...) and I made a small scene - another doctor reluctantly agreed to 'take a look' - he was cold, rude and unsympathetic. I had to take him out of the room and talk to him in a very low voice, shaking with anger and frustration - barely able to form words. We took her home, but that short spell outside the house was enough to make her ill, she developed pneumonia and died in some distress about 10 days later.

It's easy to look at my parents and say they were failures - but they were not - they were phenomenally successful in many things - brave and intelligent - did the very best that they could with the very bad hand life had dealt them - gave life to me, my brother and sister (who are both fantastic people, with great kids - happily married to lovely people and with wonderful homes and lives of their own). They took a lot of risks and showed no fear - and I'm sure that there were times when they were very happy. I can't say their parenting skills were great - I had a very poor relationship with my father (although he was very loving to my siblings) but I'm not at all bothered about that. My mothers illness caused me great pain, emotional and financial - and they had absolutely no idea how to handle me - aspergers hadn't been invented then - on one occasion the school sent a young, trendy, university educated teacher to the house to broach the subject that I might not be quite 'comfortable in my own skin' but my mum was horrified and indignant - I think they though that their parenting skills were being called into question.

I think that there is a generational thing at play too - they just didn't know how to 'be' parents. They were also much older - in their 30's when I was born - so all the kids at school had young, trendy, relaxed mums and dads who wore fashionable clothes, smoked dope and played in bands (one of my mates mum and dad was in a terrible alt rock band). My parents were stuck in the late fifties. Trying too hard to keep up appearances that nobody cared about anymore. It's too easy to say they could have done things differently - but they didn't. All I have now are boxes of pictures, letters and paperwork - but I do have myself - and I'm grateful that they gave me the drive and ambition to make a life of my own and take responsibility for myself. I'm not doing that badly.


Anna said...

I feel privileged to have read this; thank you for writing about your parents - I wish I knew as much about my own parents' lives.

Steerforth said...

Although you might not want to write it, you have all the material for a really good memoir. I really enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

This is the best thing I have read for ages, really moving. Steerforth is right you should write a memoir.

Unknown said...

To me, you are great. And so is your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. It's a fine piece of writing, from the heart.

nilly said...

Yours is my favourite blog. I wonder if we are all bit nuts or is there a world of normals somewhere out there?

Post a Comment