About my parents | Blogging a dead horse

Blogging a dead horse

Is a barrel of naked monkeys more fun than a barrel of hairy ones?

About my parents

My mother recently died and so I thought I would share a few thoughts about this moment.

My parents liked to go to dances. In 1943 they met at a dance in Bridlington, where my mother lived. She was a girl from Gomersal and he was a lad from Gateshead. He drove tanks and loved the excitement of wartime life and I suspect was a bit of a girl magnet. There seems to have been something of a live now die later atmosphere in this little Yorkshire seaside town. Along with big bands at the Spa Pavilion, they even had the odd bombing raid to go along with the soldiers billeted there completing their training before D-day.

My father’s wartime speciality was repairing Sherman tanks under fire and on the move. They were, by his accounts temperamental machines that became nicknamed “Ronsons” because the Ronson cigarette lighter’s advertising slogan was, “One Strike, and it lights.”

By 1953 they were in London and my father was a detective. He was one of the many ex-servicemen the Metropolitan police recruited to deal with the gangs engaged in a crime spree at the time. The Great Train Robbery was perhaps the most famous of the era. But there were many others and my father had the time of his life mounting raids on lorry hijackers.

My mother I think, felt left out and trapped with the children, though that was what women did in those days. To work was an insult to your husband and a sign of being a bad wife and mother. I have no idea if this is when her temper developed, but whatever the source, it could erupt in sudden unforeseen bursts.

She died on Bastille Day 2019, the anniversary of the day she married. I had a brief Face-Time conversation with her, though I’m not entirely sure she heard much as she was on the hospital bed not looking her best. The most profound thing I managed to say was, I’ll speak to you later, goodbye. And she vaguely waved and that was that. A few hours later my sister texted me that she was gone.

The last real conversation I had with her was her telling me that she was passed going anywhere. Because of the cancer she now had, she’d lost too much weight and sitting in a car was too painful. She’d been complaining that she did not know what a 95 year old was supposed to do! I was no real help as I pointed to the age of the Malaysian prime minister and of course David Attenborough and then there’s Professor James Lovelock who just turned a hundred and was publicising his latest book on I.T. I tried to put a positive age is but a number spin on things, tried to get her to perhaps socialise a little but all I was doing was avoiding the moment when she had decided enough was enough.

I had had a similar conversation with my father before he died. He was all dressed up in a new shirt, which I knew was a bad sign. And he was complaining about feeling faint. My mother kept butting in telling him to let me get to bed as it was late in Malaysia and then saying he was just complaining about nothing and that her back was far worse. He muttered “Be Lucky” and that was the last conversation I had with him. Another case of avoiding the issue, the moment when everyone knows that it is all over.

Age is not just a number! It kills you. And it scares me, as it scared my mother. And so we avoided the issue.

My father had found the last ten years of his life trying as he became increasingly immobile and plagued by skin cancers, bowel cancer and lung problems. I probably spoke to him more on Skype than I ever did when I was with him. When he was a policeman he was always working late. The job was not nine to five. CID work required you to be out mingling with the villains and not mingling with your family. He never really found a way to engage with us even after retirement. He did say that he thought retirement was the best period of his life. I think he liked the lack of stress but I don’t think he ever adjusted to the lack of excitement and was nostalgic for the days when he drove tanks: a teenager driving a tank, blowing things up and chasing girls! Life probably could never improve on that.

He never lost the taste for pubs and clubs and hanging around drinking with various “characters” as he would call them, trading in tales and gossip. Despite our lives being very different I find that I have much the same taste as my father, though the very few occasions I went off with him in London always left me feeling a bit of a naïve weakling fallen among a rough crowd looking for some mischief. That was a world that my mother hated.

My mother created a world of Beano comics, Horlicks, coal fires and black and white TV for my sister and me. In my mind it all has the sepia tinge of a post war Woman’s Realm Magazine. The clack of knitting needles and the smell of shepherd’s pie in the oven are coupled in my memory with my mother ironing and humming along to some Home Service radio show on the Wireless. This idyll of the fifties and sixties though was always underpinned by my mother’s temper. One suspects the stresses of being a “copper’s wife” in London was not to her taste and living so far away from her parents’ home in Bridlington was considered unnatural. But even though London was exotic and foreign for her, it must have been exciting, if still somewhat beaten up by the Luftwaffe.

I think it was frustrating though. If you could not either afford, or have the time or simply the know how to take up the opportunities London offered, it was an alien land. There was always a sense that her home was in the north and when we visited our grandparents, my mother always called it, "going home". She always seemed a bit lost and uncertain about social occasions, though by all accounts the teenage version loved to go dancing, but that was in a world less concerned with being someone. I think her Yorkshire is a great leveller and I doubt she would ever have left if it had not been for my father looking for some kind of adventure.

For me, a Londoner from the age of 9 months, London was Saturday Morning pictures at the Carlton cinema, playing war amongst the "Bomb Sites", and the social opportunities of hordes of children running all over the front gardens of the Police Accommodation that we lived in. I recall it as being noisy with our screams. The Baby Boom had boomed a lot in Canonbury and this generation had, as far as my mother was concerned, a wild heathenish edge to it.

For my mother it was probably an endless round of kids clamouring to be fed and dressed and pushed off to school without much in the way of a respite. I can remember us all being amused by her going to night classes where they taught things like how to turn old "78 records" into flower pots. She always liked making things but somehow the results disappointed her. She seemed to be endlessly knitting something and then unpicking it and re-using the wool again.

Shockingly it was not until 2017 that I discovered my mother kept diaries. Perhaps it was a habit that grew from the weekly letters she used to write home. In the 1950’s only doctors and other professionals had phones in the home and long distance calls between call boxes were expensive and difficult to organise. The world of postwar Britain was a long way from the war time world that she grew up in and I sense she never quite approved of it.

Such was her power over me that I feared delving into those diaries. My mother was a private person and I am sure there was a side that she found hard to share with me, or I found hard to solicit from her. Our interests did not coincide much. Her attempts to civilise me through endless attempts to get me to Sunday School, a place that smacked all too much of banishment, repeatedly failed. Though when I did look into the diaries hoping for some insight, I found little more than a litany of ailments, hospital appointments, and the occasional description of holidays outlining what was visited.

I am sure there must have been more, or perhaps there was not. I do not think she had the urge that my father had, for somehow getting his story out there. Though my father's writings are about tanks, spies, East End Villains, and dodgy coppers and a sort of fantasy version of himself, where he knows languages, can kill with impunity, has a string of dangerous women seducing him, and has the Queen handing out medals to him. Though I think the only medal he was particularly proud of was the Legion D'honneur that he got for his part in D-Day. I am sure the reality behind his fictions was probably more mundane but at the same time alarming. He had been one of the Metropolitan Police sent out to Belfast during the troubles and by all accounts that had proved a far more disturbing experience than anything the Germans had thrown at him. He retired from the police soon after that and took my mother back home to Bridlington and Flamborough.

It is quite upsetting to think of how little I know of both my parents and how difficult it was to step over barriers laid down when I was a child.

There were moments that one recalls of closeness: my father teaching me to ride a bicycle, for instance, an adult one where I could not reach the seat, but could stand on the pedals. I can remember my mother nagging him about how stupid it was to get such a thing and how I would break my neck. My mother rarely minced words when expressing her disapproval. All very true, but somehow, the fact that I actually mastered that bike with my dad running along the road trying to catch me before I hit any real traffic, was a moment where I joined him in his conspiracy against the mundane world. Women, as my father would explain, just don’t understand these things. He also told me that women were only good for the bed and the kitchen. Which perhaps explains even more the temper of my mother, along with, paradoxically, the reason why they stayed together for seventy odd years.

Mid-twentieth century sexual politics were simpler. A man was a man. A woman was a woman. And one behaved accordingly. Even so, my mother was not immune to the movements of the time. She decided that she should learn how to drive. And, since at seventeen I had a license to drive, I became her qualified accompanying driver and accompanied her on many long drives about Hertfordshire. She could not drive with my father in the car. He was too certain that she was about to kill everyone, especially him if he attempted to tell her how she should drive. As for me, having been trained by my mother’s unpredictable fierceness since birth, and thus with the nerves of a bomb disposal officer, took it all in my stride. She is the only person I know who has managed to wrench a moving mini into reverse gear, while on a roundabout. Impossible to do with modern cars, but on the cars of 1969 it could be done with a bit of deft footwork on the clutch and brake, coupled with a complete disregard for the evil sound of grinding gears. As to its purpose, I am not sure, but my mother managed it. “Put it in neutral and restart the engine,” I can remember saying. “Now engage the clutch and slip it into first.” We were laughing as we drove off leaving behind the chaos of horn hitting drivers.

Give or take a few hairy moment, she was not a bad driver but she would panic under stresses like Driving Tests. After a couple of attempts she gave up. She said it was because her eyesight was going. But the cataracts that had been diagnosed were not going to cause any problems for the next thirty years. One suspects that my father’s disdain for women drivers probably got to her. But those drives were among the closest moments I had with her and within two years I had left home, leaving my parents to continue sparring with each other. As my father complained, my mother strove to drive him "round the toot."

The empty nest was soon filled with an adopted brother. I do not know whether this was my mother's or my father's idea. My mother never seemed particularly maternal and my father always seemed happier being a man among men on a mission, then hanging about the home. For whatever reason, they adopted a new son. He was called Robert, but they renamed him George, a name that he rather liked. He had been dumped in an orphanage at birth and several foster homes had somehow failed to take to him. At the age of four, my parents took him in. He was a bit of a tearaway as he grew older, a football fan, a man's man as they say, and good enough on a team to go off for trials in Hull. He developed a strong East Yorkshire accent that I couldn't help making fun of.

During the years they brought him up, my father retired from the police and they returned to Yorkshire. My adopted brother was something of a tragedy though. If you live in Flamborough, fishing is one of the few industries available and also one of the most dangerous. The fishing boat that he worked on sank losing all the crew and every year since that happened, my mother had a wreath placed on the memorial. This whole interlude left both my parents with a huge hole in their life that we rarely spoke of. Ironically, Robert, with his new identity is the only Gray with a memorial, in fact, two of them: one in the Flamborough churchyard and another in the centre of the village alongside another memorial to a previous fishing disaster. He is now a little bit of local history.

For better or worse, neither of my parents have a memorial. They are scattered on the lawns of the crematorium at Flamborough. The costs and temporary nature of plaques in crematoriums just invoked grumpy distain from my father, thinking it all a waste of money. Though there is something all too anonymous about a scattering of ashes that do not particularly look like anything, certainly not anything that once contained a life. One says a few words over them that perhaps for a moment conjure up the personality but that moment is gone and one doubts anyone was listening that much anyway.

We have a very short time with our parents. And as a child you are barely conscious that they exist as anything but Mum and Dad. And then as a teenager you cannot wait for them to get out of your way. Then you have left home to head off to somewhere exciting, less mundane, but these people from a different era maintain a mysterious hold over you and define the one place that is home. And when they are gone one realises that the shocking truth is that one has missed so much of what went on in their life and at the same time, one is just like them, blundering through life in much the same way.

I hasten to add that my mother’s temper has by-passed me, though the philosophy it imbued me with has remained: “Put it in neutral, restart the engine, engage the clutch, slip it into first…”